(Not So) Long Read: “The Fat Drug”

Another story for the “be careful what you wish for” files — everything from unsanctioned human experimentation to animal cruelty to global climate change, wrapped up in a mantra of scienterrific progress. Pagan Kennedy, in the NYTimes:

IF you walk into a farm-supply store today, you’re likely to find a bag of antibiotic powder that claims to boost the growth of poultry and livestock. That’s because decades of agricultural research has shown that antibiotics seem to flip a switch in young animals’ bodies, helping them pack on pounds. Manufacturers brag about the miraculous effects of feeding antibiotics to chicks and nursing calves. Dusty agricultural journals attest to the ways in which the drugs can act like a kind of superfood to produce cheap meat.

But what if that meat is us? Recently, a group of medical investigators have begun to wonder whether antibiotics might cause the same growth promotion in humans. New evidence shows that America’s obesity epidemic may be connected to our high consumption of these drugs. But before we get to those findings, it’s helpful to start at the beginning, in 1948, when the wonder drugs were new — and big was beautiful…

In 1954, Alexander Fleming — the Scottish biologist who discovered penicillin — visited the University of Minnesota. His American hosts proudly informed him that by feeding antibiotics to hogs, farmers had already saved millions of dollars in slop. But Fleming seemed disturbed by the thought of applying that logic to humans. “I can’t predict that feeding penicillin to babies will do society much good,” he said. “Making people larger might do more harm than good.”

Nonetheless, experiments were then being conducted on humans. In the 1950s, a team of scientists fed a steady diet of antibiotics to schoolchildren in Guatemala for more than a year,while Charles H. Carter, a doctor in Florida, tried a similar regimen on mentally disabled kids. Could the children, like the farm animals, grow larger? Yes, they could…

Farms clamored for antibiotic slurry from drug companies, which was trucked directly to them in tanks. By 1954, Eli Lilly & Company had created an antibiotic feed additive for farm animals, as “an aid to digestion.” It was so much more than that. The drug-laced feeds allowed farmers to keep their animals indoors — because in addition to becoming meatier, the animals now could subsist in filthy conditions. The stage was set for the factory farm…






38 replies
  1. 1
    Violet says:

    Pagan Kennedy

    That’s someone’s real name?

  2. 2
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Violet: She’s been reporting for many years. I seem to remember her saying that her parents were looking for a name that wouldn’t associate her with “those Kennedys” — and given the reproductive vigor of Joseph Sr., that’s not easy!

  3. 3
    Violet says:

    @Anne Laurie: Well, if that was her parents goal, the name seems like a good choice.

  4. 4
    Professor says:

    I am afraid that is the creed/objective of capitalism: Profit. That is less Costs, high Revenue = Excess Profits. Think about that. Your health is not important to them.

  5. 5
    FlipYrWhig says:

    But what if that meat is us?

    That line is going to haunt my dreams.

  6. 6
    Amir Khalid says:

    @Violet:
    It’s somebody’s real byline, at any rate. In my own newspaper days, I wrote as “H. Amir Khalid”. To paraphrase the actress Joanne Pflug, who was talking about her own surname, Pagan sounds like a name you change from, not to.

  7. 7
    efgoldman says:

    Many laws of unintended consequences, including contributing to overuse, which now leaves us with antibiotic-resistant microbes.
    Good on for Fleming to recognize it so early. Not his fault that nobody paid attention.

  8. 8
    WaterGirl says:

    This makes me sick:

    Nonetheless, experiments were then being conducted on humans. In the 1950s, a team of scientists fed a steady diet of antibiotics to schoolchildren in Guatemala for more than a year,while Charles H. Carter, a doctor in Florida, tried a similar regimen on mentally disabled kids.

    So we experimented on brown kids and mentally disabled kids. Great.

  9. 9
    Violet says:

    As someone who has recently become interested in the role of bacteria in our gut and how it affects other parts of our bodies and health, this article is fascinating. Antibiotics of any sort disrupt the microbiome and can change it permanently, affecting our health in unknown ways. Weight gain may be one of them but it certainly isn’t the only one.

    By the way, if anyone is interested in finding out what’s in your own gut, The American Gut Project is conducting a study and you can join:

    It’s simple to join: donate $99 to the project and we will send you a home sampling kit (or sign up for multiple Kits – scroll to bottom to review). In return, we will provide you with a list of the bacteria in your sample – and relative abundance – and show you how your bacterial community compares to others in the study based on the diet and lifestyle questionnaire you fill out when you take your sample. The more people we have in the study, the more we will learn and be able to tell you.

    You get to find out what bacteria are in your gut, compare that to the rest of the country, and contribute to science all at the same time!

  10. 10
    efgoldman says:

    More good, conservative science, and another reason to worry about Sooner and the family Grunt.:

    EDMOND, Oklahoma – An Edmond doctor is under fire for allegedly injecting patients across Oklahoma with a mysterious formula called the “Jesus shot.”
    Dr. John Michael Lonergan is a former federal prison inmate who was convicted of tax evasion, mail fraud and healthcare fraud in Ohio. Lonergan is also known as “Dr. Mike.”

    http://www.news9.com/story/248.....jesus-shot

  11. 11
    Violet says:

    @WaterGirl: Oh, it gets worse if you read the actual article:

    Mr. Jukes summarized Dr. Carter’s research in a monograph on nutrition and antibiotics: “Carter carried out a prolonged investigation of a study of the effects of administering 75 mg of chlortetracycline” — the chemical name for Aureomycin — “twice daily to mentally defective children for periods of up to three years at the Florida Farm Colony. The children were mentally deficient spastic cases and were almost entirely helpless,” he wrote. “The average yearly gain in weight for the supplemented group was 6.5 lb while the control group averaged 1.9 lb in yearly weight gain.”

    Mentally defective children. Florida Farm Colony. Makes your skin crawl. This was the 1950s, so not that long ago.

    Edit: Forgot to add, they did it on Navy recruits too:

    Researchers also tried this out in a study of Navy recruits. “Nutritional effects of antibiotics have been noted for some time” in farm animals, the authors of the 1954 study wrote. But “to date there have been few studies of the nutritional effects in humans, and what little evidence is available is largely concerned with young children. The present report seems of interest, therefore, because of the results obtained in a controlled observation of several hundred young American males.” The Navy men who took a dose of antibiotics every morning for seven weeks gained more weight, on average, than the control group.

  12. 12
    The Fat Kate Middleton says:

    Jesus. This makes me sick. As does this:

    http://www.nytimes.com/interac.....&_r=0

    This took place a half-hour’s drive from where I live, and the nine “Boys” who still live here are in Waterloo, where I was born.

  13. 13
    Amir Khalid says:

    @efgoldman:
    I’m shocked that the state medical board gave Lonergan back his medical licence, after he’d committed healthcare fraud.

  14. 14
    aimai says:

    @Violet: Pagan is a real name, I’m pretty sure that other people have had it.

  15. 15
    Violet says:

    @aimai: People name their kids all sorts of things–like Apple and Pilot Inspektor. Pagan has a specific meaning so it struck me as unusual.

  16. 16
    max says:

    His American hosts proudly informed him that by feeding antibiotics to hogs, farmers had already saved millions of dollars in slop.

    TOO MUCH IS NEVER ENOUGH

    Nonetheless, experiments were then being conducted on humans. In the 1950s, a team of scientists fed a steady diet of antibiotics to schoolchildren in Guatemala for more than a year,while Charles H. Carter, a doctor in Florida, tried a similar regimen on mentally disabled kids. Could the children, like the farm animals, grow larger? Yes, they could…

    It is obvious in retrospect (given the many other medical experiments of the period) that entirely too many people were inspired by Nazi medical experimentation.

    max
    [‘If your subjects don’t die, it must be OK!’]

  17. 17
    efgoldman says:

    @Amir Khalid:

    I’m shocked that the state medical board gave Lonergan back his medical licence, after he’d committed healthcare fraud.

    ::John Huston voice:: “Forget it, Amir. It’s Oklahoma.”

  18. 18
    hamletta says:

    @max: I wouldn’t be so quick to bring up Nazis. Medical ethics were pretty appalling w/o them, eg Tuskeegee Airmen. Sorry so terse, using iPhone.

  19. 19
    srv says:

    Has anyone posted about the glorious story at the liberal lefty PBS?

    On December 18th, the Public Broadcasting Service’s flagship station WNET issued a press release announcing the launch of a new two-year news series entitled “The Pension Peril.” The series, promoting cuts to public employee pensions, is airing on hundreds of PBS outlets all over the nation. It has been presented as objective news on major PBS programs including the PBS News Hour.

    However, neither the WNET press release nor the broadcasted segments explicitly disclosed who is financing the series. Pando has exclusively confirmed that “The Pension Peril” is secretly funded by former Enron trader John Arnold, a billionaire political powerbroker who is actively trying to shape the very pension policy that the series claims to be dispassionately covering.

    i keep wondering why David Brooks doesn’t have his own TV show there.

  20. 20
    Jim C says:

    @Violet:

    Pagan Kennedy

    That’s someone’s real name?

    I remember when she used to write and publish her own ‘zine.
    (So … um, I’m old. Get off my lawn. Or not, I don’t care. Whatever.)

  21. 21

    @srv: Too much hard work for Brooksie.

  22. 22
    srv says:

    because in addition to becoming meatier, the animals now could subsist in filthy conditions.

    Look, if we have to feed all those slacker children school lunches, we might as well be feeding them something that makes them tougher and saves us facility costs.

  23. 23
    CarolDuhart2 says:

    It’s also worth noticing that in the West at least, this era is also the end of a lot of breastfeeding and the substitution with formula. Breast milk has natural microbes in it, and is not as fatty as a lot of formula.

    Also, formula makes for early addition of solids instead of breast milk, which certainly adds calories to a baby’s diet.

    In any event, it’s a tradeoff-better health that comes with increased weight-no more wasting away from tuberculosis, diarrhea, or other diseases from air and waterborne microbes.

    But Americans stayed relatively slim for a long time: kids played outside and adults took the bus and lived in neighborhoods where one “walked to the store” or to the library, or to church.

    I remember the ballooning didn’t begin until neighborhoods became to unsafe to walk, until they were suburban cul-de=sacs with no sidewalks, until store-church-library were placed in malls you didn’t dare walk to because of the traffic.

  24. 24
    Anne Laurie says:

    @efgoldman: If you look at the comments, the ‘Jesus shot’ seems to be some combination of corticosteroids & B12 that’s supposed to stop pain by curing ‘inflammation’. Which, yeah, that’s what steroids do, and B12 will ‘energize’ an ailing person, so the shots probably make some people feel ‘miraculously’ better… at least for a while… even apart from the blessings of the placebo effect. Those same ‘miracle’ steroids also, of course, have a wide range of dangerous/potentially fatal side effects, but the people suffering enough to pay a man they’ve been told is a convicted felon to shoot them up with an ‘unknown’ substance aren’t liable to be worrying about long-term effects down the road.

    Shorter: Guy’s a cheapjack charlatan, who may or may not believe his own BS. But he’s not lurking in dark alleys, or brightly-lit ERs, randomly injecting victims. It’s a sad thing for the individual Oklahomans who don’t have the intelligence or the education to avoid charlatans, but the Soonergrunt family is presumably safe!

  25. 25
    ruemara says:

    @efgoldman: Good Lord.

    @Violet: Double Good Lord.

    Fucking people.

  26. 26
    Baud says:

    @srv:

    Not a Sirota fan, but if this story holds up, good for him for breaking it.

  27. 27
    ruemara says:

    @Baud: AFSCME has been talking about it for about 2 weeks. Shameful.

  28. 28
    PurpleGirl says:

    @hamletta: You are confusing the Tuskegee Syphilis Study with the Tuskegee Airmen. The Airmen were the first group of African-American fighter pilots in the Second World War. They were extraordinary pilots and among the most decorated of all pilot groups.

    The Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932 to 1972) was conducted the under the supervision of the U.S. Public Health Service at the Tuskegee Institute (later Tuskegee University).

    Two completely separate groups of men, with only a location in common.

  29. 29
    efgoldman says:

    @Anne Laurie:

    people suffering enough to pay a man they’ve been told is a convicted felon to shoot them up

    1) Assumes facts not in evidence.
    2) These are jeebus-loving Oklahomans we’re talking about – people who’s elected representatives voted to outlaw Sharia.

  30. 30
    Baud says:

    @ruemara:

    Thanks. I only heard about it in the last day or two.

  31. 31
    JPL says:

    @Baud: Now I know why I stopped watching Newshour. I saw the article a few days ago and I hope that Newshour addresses it. Washington Week in Review is a joke, too .

  32. 32
    WereBear says:

    There’s a reason our era began with a mad scientist shrieking he shouldn’t have meddled in God’s domain. There are real dangers.

    Perhaps other societies have handled it better. Here in the US, where Profit is a sacrament, we can guarantee the ones in charge will be undercut when it comes to listening about possible dangers.

  33. 33
    Geeno says:

    @hamletta: Seriously, what did they actually have against Mengele? Seems like he was just applying the rules of the day.

  34. 34
    MikeJ says:

    @Jim C: I remember reading her book ‘zine, which was about publishing Pagan’s Head.

  35. 35
    a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q) says:

    @CarolDuhart2: In addition to less walking, there were even more endocrine disruptors than antibiotics. Can anyone say plastics? BPA has not been kind to fauna of all kinds.

  36. 36
    sm*t cl*de says:

    Medical ethics were pretty appalling w/o [Nazis]
    I dunno. Doctors back then generally understood that some studies are simply gorge-raisingly obscene. That’s why they conducted them in Guatemala, or on invisible populations whom no-one cared about.

  37. 37
    karen says:

    But what if that meat is us?

    Soylent Green is people!

    No one had done it yet so I thought I would.

  38. 38
    Debbie(aussie) says:

    @The Fat Kate Middleton:

    Thanks for the link. That was an amazing story (remember reading about it year/s ago). What can one say about Mr Henry? “What a bastard!” comes to mind, but is too mild. A reserved spot in one of those levels of hell that VDE describes so well might be nice, if I believed in hell.

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