In a recent interview on our Bite podcast, food pundit Mark Bittman named one “way, way easy” thing the President Barack Obama could have done to make the food system safer and healthier: tightly restrict the meat industry’s use of antibiotics. But instead of doing so, Bittman said, Obama’s Food and Drug Administration instituted voluntary guidelines that leave a gaping, industry-friendly loophole—a topic I explain here.
Turns out, Obama fully gets why it’s dangerous to feed confined animals low, regular doses of the same drugs we use to fight infections in people. Bill Maher, who landed an interview with the president on his HBO show, pressed Obama talk about corporate malfeasance in food production—the conversation turns to food at about the 16:00 mark; here‘s a snippet. Obama urged listeners to “follow the science,” and then he said this:
So, when it comes to antibiotics, for example, the science is clear: We pump our animals full of it. And that’s not just a problem in terms of what we’re ingesting; it’s also a problem that more and more bacteria is becoming resistant to antibiotics.
It would have been fascinating to see Maher press Obama on the FDA’s flawed approach to addressing the problem. According to the agency’s latest numbers, use of “medically important” antibiotics on US farms rose 23 percent between 2009 and 2014. Over the same period, US meat production was roughly flat, meaning that meat production became more antibiotic-intensive over that five-year period of Obama’s watch.
The two also dipped into the recent debate on genetically modified organisms in food production. Again urging people to “follow the science,” Obama opined that GMOS are a mixed bag: “There are areas where there are legitimate concerns; there are some areas where the science seems to indicate, well, this is okay.” In an apparent reference to a recent New York Times report, Maher noted that that GMOs have proven to be no more productive than conventional crops, while also using more pesticides. Obama’s response:
If it turns out that some of these genetically modified foods aren’t healthier, aren’t more productive, then we should follow the science. If in some cases they aren’t causing any harm, we should follow the science there as well.
It was bracing to see a sitting president engage in an informed conversation about food policy. If only it happened more often.