The Price of Pork and the Externalities of Antibiotic Resistance

If you haven’t read Maryn McKenna’s excellent piece on antibiotic resistance, you should. Before I get to a point about agriculture, I just want to point out this bit from McKenna’s article:

At UCLA, Spellberg treated a woman with what appeared to be an everyday urinary-tract infection — except that it was not quelled by the first round of antibiotics, or the second. By the time he saw her, she was in septic shock, and the infection had destroyed the bones in her spine. A last-ditch course of the only remaining antibiotic saved her life, but she lost the use of her legs. “This is what we’re in danger of,” he says. “People who are living normal lives who develop almost untreatable infections.”

I’m glad to see this raised, as I’ve discussed before:

I have this sinking feeling that, as is usually the case with antibiotic resistance, we are simply cataloging the apocalypse. Leaving aside the dire and legitimate concerns of untreatable life-threatening infections, CREs include E. coli and Klebsiella, the two most common urinary tract infection organisms. Do you want to live in a world where a (hopefully) small percentage of UTIs can’t be treated?

But I digress. Onto agriculture. This is something I’ve never understood (boldface mine):

But if the loss of antibiotics change how livestock are raised, then farmers might be the ones to suffer. Other methods for protecting animals from disease—enlarging barns, cutting down on crowding, and delaying weaning so that immune systems have more time to develop—would be expensive to implement, and agriculture’s profit margins are already thin. In 2002, economists for the National Pork Producers Council estimated that removing antibiotics from hog raising would force farmers to spend $4.50 more per pig, a cost that would be passed on to consumers.

Searching the internets, I’m finding that a 300 lb pig yields about 150 lbs of ‘hanging weight’–stuff you can eat. So let’s be extremely conservative and say that a pig only yields 100 lbs of meat. We’re talking about a price increase of four and a half cents per pound. Just for arguments sake, let’s say the cost of not treating has risen to nine dollars per piggy. For some perspective, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that pork chops in urban areas average $3.58/lb and other pork products are $2.60/lb.

So how is possibly preserving the power of antibiotics not worth nine cents a pound? We’re talking about an increase comparable to the state-to-state differences in the sales tax. Yes, I know some people think the role of agriculture is overblown, but at a price increase in the neighborhood of a few percent, why are we even debating this issue? Just pass the price on to consumers already.

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10 Responses to The Price of Pork and the Externalities of Antibiotic Resistance

  1. daddyjamesb says:

    The increase in costs probably is due to the fact that the number of pigs that could be raised in a given area (farm) would have to be drastically reduced. Industrialization of the process means they are essentially shoulder to shoulder in extremely confined spaces – a perfect breeding ground for rapid spread of disease. Without the use of antibiotics, this type of industrialized “factory” farming would not be possible.

  2. Barbara says:

    It would be good to reduce the amount of antibiotics used on farms. However, your “just pass the cost on to consumers” doesn’t work. Whether it costs a farmer $3.50 or $4.50 or $5.50 per pound to raise a hog, he’s going to get the same price as everyone else. That’s a price set by the market (supply of hogs vs. demand for it) somewhat modified by all the weird things that modify markets. He’s not going to get more just because his costs are higher. Therefore, he can’t do this unless required.

    And that’s assuming all else is equal. It’s not. It’s fairly easy to avoid or minimize antibiotic use if you raise just a few dozen animals of each species (we did) but if there are hundreds of animals in close quarters, disease transmission is more frequent and both slow growth and death due to illness are more common. Minimizing agricultural antibiotics is a good goal, but it requires / results in restructuring the industry. Not simple. Not nearly as simple as “just pass the 90 cents per pound to the consumer.”

  3. hipparchia says:

    denmark has been leading the way on this, in pigs at least. as for costs, one danish pig farmer, visiting pig farmers in iowa, has this to say:

    Munck stopped using antibiotics to promote growth and prevent diseases in his hog operation in 1992. Munck says there were a few adjustments at first, but now his operation runs with few problems. He says producers will have to get used to some adjustments.

    Munck says on paper it will cost you more, but he says that is offset by results as the hogs produce bigger piglets and there are more live-born pigs. “Instead of 12 per liter, now we get 16 per liter, because the sow is better prepared to be pregnant again,” Munck says.

    can i just put the rest of my danish pig farmer links in one comment, to be fished out of the spam filter at your convenience?

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  5. David Duncan says:

    To follow off of Barbara’s comment, there really isn’t even a “market” for hogs. As of 2007, 4 packing companies controlled 65% of the national market. In Iowa and its surrounding states, these companies control about 90% and 75% of the market respectively (Figs 2 & 3 on page 10 of the pdf: The key here is that agricultural producers are not a good leverage point for this type of issue, because their option space is so limited. The good news about this consolidation is that it turns a distributed problem (changing producer behavior) to a point-source problem (changing packer behavior/standards). Of course, the bad news is that the most direct path to progress is through large, national companies linked to an aggressive lobbying machine and wielding considerable clout in rural districts.

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