1:05 PM Apr 12, 1996


Penang Apr 11 (Martin Khor) -- The outbreak of the Mad Cow Disease has brought to public attention the dangers inherent in the modern intensive system of livestock production.

A review of this system, and search for better alternatives, including traditional methods, is now urgently needed to prevent the spread of diseases amongst animals as well as people.

The intensive rearing of animals, and centralised distribution of artificial feed, set the framework within which the Mad Cow Disease or BSE spread from infected sheep to cattle, and then to humans, in which it is known as CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease).

The intensive livestock system started in the United States early this century but in the United Kingdom it increased dramatically only during and after the Second World War.

Some developing countries still practise traditional ways of livestock rearing, but in many others (like Malaysia) there has also been a recent shift to the intensive system.

In his 1994 book "Hard To Swallow", Leeds University microbiologist Professor Richard Lacey describes intensive rearing as being "concerned with the maximum yield of meat, milk or eggs from the minimum resources."

The main aim is to attain "efficiency", defined by the profit-oriented goals of increasing the amount of meat and other products, and reducing costs and prices.

The animals are kept in crowded and confined conditions such as in sheds, cages and pens. Besides the cruel treatment of animals, intensive rearing involves dangerous farming practices.

Due to the cramped and unnatural conditions, animals develop ailments which can spread widely among them.

A new book by the Malaysian group, the Consumers' Association of Penang (CAP), "The Revenge of the Killer Germs" (published in 1996), describes how US farm chickens typically suffer from retarded growth, eye damage, blindness, kidney and brain damage, deformed beaks and joints.

"Also the stress, overcrowding, lack of exercise and unnatural conditions lead the animals to go mad with fear and hysteria, with some pecking viciously at each other or in extreme cases to eviscerate and eat each other.

"A US government report found that over 90% of chicken from many flocks have chicken cancer. Living in a relentless state of stress, they are also prone to a whole range of infectious diseases."

A prime example is the infection of chicken and eggs with salmonella, the group of bacteria that can cause severe food poisoning, vomiting and diarrhoea or even typhoid and paratyphoid fever.

Says Lacey: "It has been known for years that modern intensive methods of broiler and egg production are addled with salmonella". The bacteria develops in a minority of chickens at the farm, and then spreads during the slaughtering and preparation stages.

At the point of sale in the UK, most chicken will contain salmonella, anything from a thousand to a million bacteria on each bird. Salmonella is also spread directly from the chicken ovaries to the eggs as they are being formed, in a process called "transovarian."

Lacey estimates that one in 5,000 eggs in the UK is contaminated by salmonella, whilst a recent study in Devon found a rate of one in 200.

In 1988, the UK Junior Health Minister announced that most of the country's egg production was contaminated with salmonella. Recent surveys in the United States showed a high extent of salmonella contamination of intensive chicken and egg production.

For example, 60% of samples of recycled chicken protein going into animal feed contained salmonella.

European surveys published in 1993 show salmonella present in up to 75% of chicken samples.

If the modern farming system produces a high incidence of diseases in the animals, these ailments are passed on to humans through consumption of infected meat and other routes.

There is now a fast-rising incidence of food poisoning and food- related diseases. Lacey estimates that food poisoning cases jumped four-fold in the UK and 2.5 times in the US between 1982 to 1992.

According to Time magazine in 1994, at least 500 people in the US die annually from microbes in meat and poultry and an additional 6.5 million fall ill.

Besides ailments caused by conditions of the animal farms, another major way in which diseases originate and spread is through the artificial animal feed to whose cereal based are added vitamins, antibiotics and other drugs, protein supplements and minerals.

Each of the additives could give rise to health problems. In the case of BSE, the infection route was through brains and organs of infected sheep processed into protein concentrates and fed to cattle.

The use of antibiotics in feed has caused serious problems. These drugs are fed to animals to counter diseases. They are also used to promote animal growth and weight. In time many new strains of bacteria develop that are resistant to the drugs. The antibiotic-resistant germs can spread to humans through food consumption, touching meat, contact with the animal, by air, dust, flies and other insects.

Another problem is that there are drug residues in meat, which can pass on to humans. For instance, in 1990, the UK government admitted that 5% of pork samples tested were tainted with the antibiotic sulphonamide.

According to Time magazine, a 1992 study by the US Congress office found traces of 64 antibiotics in milk at levels that "raise health concerns" as they could produce resistant germs in milk drinkers.

In developing countries, where laws are more lax, and administration laxer still, the situation may be worse.

For Malaysia, CAP's 1996 book gives disturbing evidence of "rampant" use of antibiotics in livestock farms.

More disturbingly, CAP tests on meat samples sold in Malaysian markets found that a majority of bacteria were resistant to two types of antibiotics, thus demonstrating the existence of food-poisoning "supergerms" that could not be treated with some medicines.

Another problem is that in people who unknowingly take in antibiotics through their food, resistance to the drugs can also build up in the bacteria.

These two factors have led to an increase in new strains of human infections that cannot be treated by antibiotics and is now contributing to the wave of new, resurgent and drug-resistant diseases.

According to the CAP book, US government scientists reported that 90% of resistant strains of salmonella found in humans could be traced back to livestock. For e.g., in 1985 several hundred people developed diarrhoea due to antibiotic-resistant salmonella newport after eating hamburgers, and two died. Researchers traced the bacteria to a farm where the cattle had been dosed regularly with penicillin and tetracycline drugs.

In 1984, Dr Scott Holmberg and colleagues at the US Centre for Disease Control concluded that "antimicrobial-resistant enteric bacteria... from food animals can cause serious infections in humans."

In his book, "Overcoming illusions about biotechnology", Filipino agricultural scientist Nicanor Perlas reveals additional hazards to human health resulting from intensive animal production systems.

Besides drugs, other hazardous residues in meat include pesticides, environmental contaminants and cancer-causing agents.

Says Perlas: "Many of the substances used in sustaining intensive animal production systems are known to cause or are suspected of causing cancer, birth defects, reduced fertility, reproduction effects, neurotoxicity or other toxic effects." He points out another problem associated with intensive livestock rearing: the rapid decline in genetic diversity within each animal species.

The intensive systems have led to greater uniformity of breeding stocks for commercial production. For example, by the early 1980s, over 90% of dairy cattle in the US was accounted for by just the Holstein breed because of economic factors favouring maximum milk output per cow. "This loss of genetic diversity is a very serious problem," says Perlas. "Genetic uniformity makes animal production systems vulnerable to changing biophysical and social environments."

For e.g., in November 1983, the US declared a state of "extraordinary emergency" due to an outbreak of avian flu among poultry flocks. "The genetic, chemical and drug defence system of the poultry industry," explains Perlas, "were breached by the avian flu virus, which spread rapidly because of relative genetic uniformity of poultry breeds. By the time the disease was controlled, 12 million poultry had to be destroyed. In Pennsylvania alone, farmers lost $51.9 million."

Given the wide range of problems associated with intensive livestock production, and the threats posed to human health, there is clearly a need for policy makers everywhere to urgently review the entire system of animal production.

The tragic incident of the Mad Cow Disease (BSE-CJD) outbreak would perhaps have some beneficial effect if it could highlight the ecological and health aspects of modern intensive animal rearing.

At the least, say experts, drastic controls should be imposed on the components of animal feed, especially drugs and protein supplements.

The inclusion of animal organs and remains in feed should also be banned or severely curtailed, as this can spread infection in disastrous fashion, as evident in the Mad Cow Disease.

The liberal use and misuse of drugs in animal feed should be addressed equally urgently, as this has increased the resistance of many bacteria to many types of antibiotics.

The spread of drug-resistant supergerms due to feeding of drugs to animals, as also over-prescription of antibiotics by doctors, has led to ailments that are less susceptible to medical treatment. There is also the resurgence of diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera and malaria as medicines have less and less effect on many strains of the infections.

One of the reasons antibiotics are fed to animals is to boost their growth and weight. This is purely a profit-maximising objective, and (as suggested by Prof. Lacey) should be banned for the sake of our health. There is really no sane reason why this practice, which contributes to the development of resistant strains of serious and potentially life-threatening diseases, should be allowed.

There should also be stricter controls on use of antibiotics to prevent or treat illness in the animals. Use of drugs that can cause harm in humans, and which are used by people, should be banned so as to prevent a higher incidence of drug resistance.

In Australia, the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock feed was stopped twenty years ago, whilst most developed countries restrict the use of certain drugs. In Malaysia, the laws are much more lax, and thus the use of antibiotics in animal farms are more rampant.

But regulating animal feed alone would be inadequate. There is also need for a review and revamping of the system of modern intensive livestock rearing itself.

If not a ban, at least a reform is in order. For e.g. regulations to prevent such excessively cramped conditions of raising chickens. The treatment of other animals should also be subject to guidelines.

Examining the horrors of Mad Cow Disease and after detailing the difficulties in acting on the disease, Lacey in his 1994 book had advocated that: "Prevention of such a disease is surely preferable, and this is one very good reason to abandon current methods of animal farming and feeding."

Indian scientist and ecologist, Dr Vandana Shiva, contrasts the problem-filled modern intensive system with India's "culturally sophisticated and ecologically sound livestock economy."

According to her, this traditional system is characterised by "diverse disease-resistant animal breeds and the decentralised sustainable and integrated livestock-crop production systems of small farmers."

Unfortunately, says Dr Shiva, the traditional system itself is under severe threat in India from trade-driven policies promoting beef exports, factory farming and giant slaughter houses.

"Is this globalisation of non-sustainable and hazardous systems of food production not symptomatic of a deeper madness than what the infected cows in UK are suffering from?" she asks.

Scientists like Lacey, Vandana Shiva and Perlas advocate a return to (or in the case of some developing countries, the preservation of) more traditional systems of livestock production including:

* Animals not to be kept confined, but allowed to roam quite freely, thus the term "free range."

* Livestock rearing along with agriculture in mixed farms, unlike in the modern system. The manure from free-ranging animals are used to maintain soil fertility.

* The animals to be given natural food, with part of the agricultural produce, straw and waste used to feed the animals. There should be no use of drugs and hormones to promote their growth or weight.

* A wider diversity of each species is reared, thus guarding against susceptibility to disease outbreaks.

If the traditional systems produce less meat and milk, and lead to higher costs and prices, it will still be a small price to pay, or indeed no price at all. For, the modern intensive system also has high hidden costs, paid for by the health of consumers and their medical bills.

Consumers today are more aware of the health drawbacks of over-consumption of meat, such as cholesterol build-up and greater susceptibility to heart ailments and stress.

They may be willing to eat less meat and pay a higher price if they are sure that the meat is safe from bacteria, BSE-carrying prion proteins, drugs and other poisons. For the better-off consumer, already taking too much meat, a switch towards more vegetables and fruits would surely be healthy.

Consuming less meat would give a positive boost to the environment. The rearing of animals for food takes up much land and results in deforestation. For e.g., cattle rearing in Central and South America to provide beef for burgers in the US, is known to a major sources of tropical forest loss.

And, a lot more of land and resources are used to produce crops to feed the animals, and more energy is used for livestock rearing than the energy contributed by these animals as food to humans.

Less meat consumption would thus free land and other resources to produce crops that directly feed people, and thus help prevent a looming crisis of food shortages that some scientists predict in the next century.