When writer Orville Schell took up ranching in 1976, he was surprised to discover that vast quantities of antibiotics and hormones were fed to, or implanted in, beef cattle raised for American tables. Concerned about possible health hazards posed by oral larvicides, worming agents, feed additives and even insecticide-bearing barn paint, Schell, 44, spent four years investigating modern livestock technology. The result is a controversial book, Modern Meat (Random House, $17.95), that warns of subtle—but potentially dangerous—long-range effects of “pharmaceutical farming.” The National Cattlemen’s Association, which says that the American public has suffered no ill effects from beef, characterizes Modern Meat as “one-sided” and “seriously flawed.” Consumer watchdog Ralph Nader calls it “precise and gripping.”
A Manhattan native, Schell grew up in an accomplished family. His father, also named Orville, is a well-known human-rights lawyer, and his brother, Jonathan, 41, wrote the best-selling antinuclear tome The Fate of the Earth. Orville studied Far Eastern history at Harvard, lived in Asia off and on for five years and has written six books about China as well as a biography of former California Gov. Jerry Brown. He and two partners currently ride herd on 300 Angus cattle on a 1,000-acre ranch north of San Francisco, where Schell talked with correspondent Nancy Faber.
Why are cattle given drugs?
Farmers believe that regular doses of antibiotics and hormones will keep their livestock healthier and make them grow faster—and those are benefits they can ring up on the cash register. If a cow goes to market 10 percent heavier because of hormone implants and antibiotics in the feed, that’s pretty compelling to the farmer.
What drugs and chemicals are commonly used on animals?
Antibiotics, of course, are injected into sick animals. But they are also mixed with the grain fed to cattle, pigs and poultry to make them grow and, it is claimed, to keep them healthy. Most feedlot cattle also have sex hormones, mostly estrogen, implanted in one ear to make them grow faster. Other hormone-like drugs are used to regulate heat cycles, castrate or cause abortions. A variety of chemicals are used to kill worms and lice.
Are these drugs dangerous?
Some are. Others are relatively harmless. The question is whether they are being misused.
Do you think they are being misused?
Yes. There is a subtle but very serious problem with mixing low doses—called “subtherapeutic” doses—of antibiotics with animal feed. These drugs kill bacteria in the animals’ digestive tracts. The big problem is that a few bacteria survive and begin to develop a resistance to the drugs.
Why is that a problem ?
It’s a problem because it’s becoming increasingly evident that these bacteria spread throughout the environment. Right now cattle have developed resistance to penicillin and tetracycline; many scientists are worried that human beings are acquiring the same resistance.
Why is that bad?
Penicillin and tetracycline are cheap and very effective for humans. Their value to medicine is immense, and it is a tragedy to squander that value by feeding them indiscriminately to animals. The wonder drugs are becoming less wondrous.
How does this resistance spread?
The bacteria can enter the environment through the food chain or the water system from cow manure, and people may come into direct contact with resistant bacteria by being around livestock or by handling raw meat—making hamburger patties or breading veal cutlets and then using the same cutting board to slice vegetables for salads—but generally not by eating meat, because cooking will kill the bacteria.
What proof is there that this resistance can spread?
Recent research done at Harvard and by the Food and Drug Administration has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that disease-resistant bacteria can and do spread from animals to people. There was also a case in Connecticut in 1976, where a farmer, his daughter and her infant son picked up diarrhea from a calf. The particular strain of salmonella proved to be resistant to everyday antibiotics.
Anything more serious?
Outbreaks of enteritis caused by a salmonella bacterium swept England in the ’60s, killing thousands of animals and infecting hundreds of people. Seven people died. The strain of salmonella proved resistant to eight common antibiotics. In 1971 the British banned the use of penicillin and tetracycline in feed without a vet’s prescription. A number of European countries, including West Germany and the Netherlands, as well as Japan have passed similar laws.
Are hormones also dangerous?
They can be when misused, but if they are used reasonably and if the time periods set by the FDA between implant and slaughter are observed, then I think they are probably safe.
Do you know of cases where hormones have caused problems?
Yes. In Puerto Rico in 1982 doctors reported seeing hundreds of little girls, some as young as 18 months, who showed signs of puberty. Endocrinologists suspected that the girls’ systems had been shocked by large amounts of estrogen used in the production of local beef and poultry. Girls of 4 had the breasts of 14-year-olds. In some cases, after they stopped eating the local meat, the symptoms disappeared.
What does the U.S. government do to protect consumers?
The USDA knows of 325 compounds that exist, but they have the capacity to test for only 117, and certainly not on every animal. The government tries to be conscientious, but it’s like putting a horse and buggy on the freeway. It’s up to the meat producer not to cheat. Most of them don’t, but some do.
How has the meat industry responded to your charges?
Most of my critics counter that, in theory, what I say is true and may actually be happening. But they say let’s study the situation more.
What do you see as the solution?
For starters, I’d like to have President Reagan and Margaret Heckler, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, agree to a petition made to them by more than 300 scientists last fall. The scientists requested a ban on the use of penicillin and tetracycline in animal feed. There are substitute drugs available that are not given to humans.
Do you eat meat?
I love meat. It isn’t as though you eat a piece of meat and you drop dead. But there are long-term effects. Farmers say that if they stopped using antibiotics and hormones, meat prices would go up. I say, bunk. I think humans are being used as guinea pigs.