November 8, 2011

South Korea’s Bold Move

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director

Center for a Livable Future

This June, South Korea took a giant leap in protecting human health, the environment, and animal welfare—by banning antibiotic use in animal feed. This is big news.

Most importantly, the ban comes at a time when we know with greater and greater certainty that the misuse of antimicrobials in industrial farm animal production (IFAP) is linked to an increase in antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. (A very recent article by Bonnie Marshall and Stuart Levy, published in Clinical Microbiology Reviews, provides one of the most comprehensive summaries of the evidence to date. For more on this read this blogpost by CLF’s Tyler Smith.) Other negative impacts of using antibiotics in animal feed to promote growth and as prophylaxis against the unsanitary conditions of IFAP include allowing to continue practices that degrade the environment, compromise animal welfare, and, too frequently overlooked in discussions about IFAP, harm the mental and physical health of IFAP workers.

The ban is also important—and historic—because South Korea is the first Asian country to embrace the science on this issue, banning 8 antibiotics for use in feed.

The EU led the way on this front five years ago, in 2006. (Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland imposed their own bans in 1986, 1998, and 1999, respectively.) The U.S. has been trying to do this for 34 years, since 1977 when the FDA first proposed limitations on antibiotic use in food animals and was shot down by a Congress that valued the interests of the agriculture industry above the health and safety of the public. (As a side note, in September, we heard that China announced a nearly identical ban—this has not been confirmed and was picked up by very few news sources.)

South Korea’s ban is a bold move—and yet there has been relatively little news coverage. Are the major media ignoring this story? Food Safety News, a web-based news source, provides good coverage here. Here’s a sampling of who else covered the story: National Hog Farmer, WattAgNet, WorldPoultry.Net, TheCattleSite, The New Straits Times, a news source based in Malaysia, and Oxy Blast, a water treatment product website that also has a news roundup for agriculture. Pretty slim showing.

Nicholas Kristof very obliquely refers to South Korea as a leader in food safety, without actually mentioning the ban in this New York Times column.

Now here’s who did not cover South Korea’s announcement: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal…  The list goes on.

To be fair, The New York Times, more than most newspapers, does cover antibiotic misuse in agriculture. The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Economist, The Des Moines Register, Huffington Post, Dr. Oz and others provide a bit of coverage as well.

But why has there been no major media coverage of South Korea’s huge leap? The problem of resistant bacteria was addressed by Alexander Fleming in his 1945 Nobel Prize speech, and it was well-known when I was a medical student in the 1960s. I hate to date myself, but we’ve known about this serious threat to human health for more than 50 years. (Read this September statement by Pew Charitable Trusts, in which they said, “As more countries follow Europe’s lead in cracking down on the misuse of important human medicines in industrial livestock farming, the inaction of the United States becomes all the more glaring.”)

I can hazard some guesses as to why there has been so little coverage. Perhaps the major media do not trust the accuracy of Yonhap News Agency’s reportage. But I checked the 2010 Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index and found that South Korea ranked 42nd out of 178 nations, better than G8 nations France and Italy. Perhaps the news is not considered important enough to cover, in which case I take issue with the judgment calls. Or, a more insidious hypothesis: perhaps the major media downplay our inaction in comparison to other nations, not wanting to highlight the U.S. as being outdone by South Korea on food safety.

Whatever the explanation, I hope to read more news on the announcement of the ban. Ideally, I’ll read coverage of the ban’s implementation. At CLF, we are trying to track down more information on the implementation, and will let you know what we learn.

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