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Organic Farm Counters Antibiotic Overuse - 2003-05-04

The discovery of antibiotics in the 20th century brought remarkable changes to modern medicine, enabling people to live longer, healthier lives. But in the last generation, new strains of bacteria have emerged that are resistant to these wonder drugs. One of the main causes of resistance is the overuse of antibiotics. That includes drugs given to commercially raised livestock. Leda Hartman profiles a family farm in the state of North Carolina that is raising meat without the use of chemicals.

Eleven-year-old Chance Lorraine and his Springer Spaniel, Daisy, like to show visitors around new horizons farm. Here, on 20 hectares, his parents raise organic vegetables, pigs, Black Angus beef cattle, and chickens.

There are also water buffalo. But what really sets New Horizons apart from commercial livestock farms are three metal silos near the pastures.

"We keep feed in all three of these. That's cow feed, that's chicken feed, and the other one is pig feed," says Chance.

The feed is special because of what it doesn't have: no growth hormones, no animal by-products, no steroids, no chemical de-wormers, and no antibiotics.

The animals in the field that eat this feed eventually end up in cold storage at the New Horizons Farm store.

"In this freezer we have our chicken," explains owner Leigh Lorraine. "Our big popular seller is our boneless, skinless chicken breast. And there's also some pork in this freezer. So we have our pork chops which is a big item; sausage, everybody likes our sausage; we can't keep bacon in stock, bacon just jumps out of the place."

Mr. Lorraine's wife, Susan, greets Kimber Pilkington, a regular customer.

Kimber Pilkington: "We came in to buy steaks, sausage. The reason I need to do this is because I'm allergic to pork and beef that you buy at the store, very allergic."
Leda Hartman: "What happens?"
Kimber Pilkington: "Well, the worst case scenario with beef has been I stop breathing."

Ms. Pilkington says she's allergic to many types of antibiotics. She suspects that that's what she reacts to when she eats commercially raised meat, because she doesn't have any adverse reactions to meat from New Horizons.

"And it's like, that's what it is. I'm eating somebody else's antibiotics, or something that was fed to these animals. And I'm allergic to it. That's how strong that stuff is," says Ms. Pilkington.

And that's why farms like New Horizons are appealing to a growing market.

Several recent studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine suggest that meat produced without antibiotics is healthier, not just for people with allergies, but for everyone, because it fights the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The studies say that commercially raised meat exacerbates the resistance problem in two ways. First, it contributes to the overuse of antibiotics in humans, since people ingest what the livestock is fed. Second, forms of antibiotic resistant bacteria that develop in some farm animals can actually be passed on to humans.

"If you remember back in the anthrax scare, Cipro was suggested as an antibiotic that could be used to stave off an anthrax reaction," explains Tony Kleese, the executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, a group that supports sustainable chemical-free agriculture. "They at the time were feeding animals Cipro, or a form of it. And so that's an example of where there was a concern that if that was widely used in the livestock industry, that it might cause a problem later on in trying to deal with something like anthrax."

Shortly after the anthrax scare, three big fast-food chains, McDonald's, Wendy's and Popeyes, agreed to stop using chickens that had been treated with Cipro or its relatives. The European Union has gone further. It has banned the use of all antibiotics in farm animals since 1998.

But in the United States, commercial growers continue to treat their livestock with drugs. Tony Kleese says that's because of the way the animals are raised. Before being butchered, they're kept in large numbers in close confinement, where they're under stress and can more easily get sick. They're routinely given antibiotics as a protective measure, rather than as a way to fight an existing illness. Mr. Kleese says it would be better to raise livestock in a healthy environment to eliminate the need for preventive drugs.

"So we do have to be thinking about: can we really have a system that works from an approach of dealing with the problem after the fact?," he asks. "Or do we really have to re-think the system and come up with a system that's addressing the issue from the front end?"

Susan Lorraine points out that's what New Horizons Farm aims to do. "This is the way Grandma used to do it," she said.

The hens range freely here, foraging the ground for extra nutrients. The eggs they lay have big orange yolks. The pigs also get plenty of space indoors and out, and have a wallow to wade in to stave off the summer heat. The cattle feed primarily on grass, not corn as they do in commercial feedlots. And all the animals are fed by hand twice a day, Ms. Lorraine says, so the farmers can keep a close eye on them and make sure they're well.

"We just had a belief that food should be safe, clean and healthy," she said. "Parents should not be having to worry about all the additional products that are found in animal meat that their children are going to wind up eating and taking into their bodies. It's time someone said, 'Whoa, we're not going to do this.'"

The clean feed New Horizons uses is more expensive than commercial feed. But the prices they charge for their meats aren't that much higher than those at a regular supermarket. And there's a new twist on the way Grandma used to do it: New Horizons' customers can order on line. That might help the farm turn a profit this year, for the first time since it opened three years ago.