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China Hog Farms Pose Major Health Risk

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Health Issues page, CAFO's vs. Free Range page and our Food Safety Research Center page.

Cheap meat is a cornerstone of the American diet. Think cheeseburgers and t-bones and ribs.

It's the same in China. Only there, the meat of choice is pork and demand is going through the roof.

Check out the menu at just about any Shanghai restaurant and you'll find plenty of pork offerings: mu shu pork, braised pork pancakes, and pork soup dumplings. Pork is big in China. In fact, half of the world's pigs are raised in the country.

China is also a huge producer and consumer of antibiotics.

About 70 miles southwest of Shanghai is Jiaxing. It's home to dozens of pig farms. Along its roads, veterinary pharmacies are slotted between feed stores. China doesn't require farmers to report the antibiotics they use but one recent study estimated that nearly half of China's antibiotics are fed to livestock.

The feeding operation takes place in a big confined building that looks more like a factory than a farm.

The manager of the farm wouldn't agree to an interview. But another employee did, even though she wasn't authorized. She said visitors have to change their clothes and shoes before entering so as not to bring in any bacteria.

A big, crowded confinement farm like this one can be a hothouse for infection and disease. This is where the antibiotics come in and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) operators often counter the threat of disease with daily doses of the drugs. They also say steady, low-dose antibiotics promote growth, which boosts efficiency and profits. It's a practice that began in the United States.

"It takes a few months here for the pigs to grow big enough for sale. The pigs are fed really good materials," said the unidentified employee.

But a rising tide of science around the world, and here in China, suggests otherwise. That's because feeding antibiotics to livestock day in and day out has a perverse effect. It pushes the evolution of bacteria that are resistant to the drugs.

"Antibiotic resistance is of course a strong selective force in the microbial world because if an organism doesn't develop a resistance it will die," said Michigan state microbiologist James Tiedje.    
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