It’s been a week already fraught with food paranoia porn–we found out that rice contains arsenic, and that there may (read: won’t) be a worldwide bacon shortage next year–but yesterday, a couple dozen middle-aged and elderly protesters from multiple organization gathered outside of Trader Joe’s on 14th Street and 3rd Avenue and, dressed in assorted floral shirts the supermarket is known for, demanded the chain stop serving meat from livestock raised on antibiotics. The argument the speakers peddled was that these antibiotics are harmful to humans because they’re causing strains of “suberbugs,” or bacteria all but immune to medication. And to hammer their point, they brought a petition with nearly 558,000 signatures gathered from around the country, and a guy dressed up in a pig suit.
“Eighty percent of antibiotics are not used on people,” Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union, told the small crowd. “Superbugs are promoted in that situation. Superbugs end up in our food.” She later chided Trader Joe’s, saying that the store “has a responsibility to serve only meat and poultry raised without drugs.”
Others also showed up to speak against the use of antibiotics in livestock. Eric Weltman, a senior organizer at the Food and Water Watch, said “reckless practice by corporate business is spurring the rise of superbugs.” He continued, nearly shouting into the microphone. “Government is not doing its job to protect consumers from useful health products!”
The most convincing argument, however, was from Kim Howland, a former lactation technician on a pig farm, who flew in from Oklahoma for the event. She told the story of how, in March 2007, a small bump appeared on the back of her husband’s thigh. They went to the hospital, but it was diagnosed as a spider bite. Within a few days, the bump was the size of tennis ball.
Her husband was infected with an antibiotic-resistant strain of MRSA, a flesh-eating bacteria. The next day, Howland’s daughter discovered a small bump on her own leg. MRSA again. The following week, Howland herself was diagnosed with a rare strain of MRSA pneumonia, and had to be hospitalized as well.
“Hog farmers can carry the superbug home,” Howland told the Voice. She said the danger was exacerbated because, as she knew from working on the farm, “When a piglet is born, it’s given a shot of penicillin on day one. Penicillin is the fix-all for pigs. But there are studies that show we’re on the edge of a cliff. There aren’t many stronger antibiotics we can come up with. They’re going to stop working.”
After the presentation, some of the organizers attempted to enter the bustling Trader Joe’s store to gather more signatures and present the petition to management, but they were mostly ignored by customers, and Halloran said that the grocery store’s corporate offices refused to sit down with the protesters. Halloran and other consumers surveyed the 13th largest supermarket chains, and saw that only one chain, Whole Foods, served meat from non-antibiotic livestock. Of the 12 left, Trader Joe’s seemed the easiest to sway.
“We thought Trader Joe’s presented itself as sensitive to environment issues and perceptive to consumer needs,” Halloran told the Voice. She cited Trader Joe’s policy of only selling sustainably caught fish as an example. “We thought that they’re in a position to make a change.”
Obviously, it’s not that easy. When livestock are treated with antibiotics, they grow larger, healthier, and yield more meat. They can be kept in closer quarters, so that farms resemble factories and disassembly lines, and more animals can be squeezed in per square foot. Owners can also spend less on cleanliness and safety. All of this affects the bottom line, which is why it was likely a bit optimistic to think that Trader Joe’s, or almost any other chain for that matter, are scrambling to wean animals off the drugs.
“This is a major public issue, “Halloran said. She said because the corporation wouldn’t meet with them, they would be delivering the petition to store managers. “We have a serious problem with superbugs. We just have to keep going around to Trader Joe’s, and going around to other stores in other cities and raising the issue.”