Is China Banning Growth Promoters And Do They Mean It?

A tantalizing prospect surfaced yesterday. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis tweeted a link to a Sept. 13 story from an online agricultural trade journal that said, in its entirety:

China’s Ministry of Agriculture has announced a forthcoming ban on antibiotics as growth promoters in animal feed. The ban is supported by the academic community, which believes that without antibiotics in animal feed, the health of animals will be better promoted, microbes’ resistance to antibiotics will be lowered and food will become safer to eat. Recent statistics show that in 2006 China produced 210,000 tons of antibiotics, and 97,000 tons were added to animal feed. Today it is estimated that 400,000 tons are produced annually.

So, first: If this story is accurate, it would be huge news. But, second: The story lists no sources and is almost a month old; in that month, there has been no other major coverage of this decision that I can find — which means a responsible reporter (which I try to be) needs to do some digging rather than pushing the link along.

First, some context: “Growth promoters” refers to the practice, widespread in very large-scale agriculture, of giving food animals tiny doses of antibiotics as they are raised. For reasons that are not well understood, even though 70 years have passed since a pharmaceutical chemist first tried it, those micro-doses make animals put on weight faster. If you’re growing animals on an industrial model, by which I mean raising them and selling them as quickly and uniformly as you can, administering growth promoters makes economic sense.

Unfortunately, it also happens to be a major driver of the emergence of antibiotic-resistant organisms. Growing bacteria in the presence of micro-doses of antibiotics is the way that scientists induce resistance in laboratories; giving micro-doses to animals on farms almost exactly recapitulates that process. And as has been repeatedly demonstrated since the 1970s, resistant bacteria that emerge on farms don’t stay on farms, but leave — via animals, farm-workers, manure, dust, wind and groundwater — and cause significant human health problems.

So if the Chinese were to do this — and note, the story above says only “forthcoming” — it would be a major step. The numbers in that small report show how major: Currently, it says, the country is using 97,000 tons of antibiotics per year in animal feed. In the United States, in 2008, we used about 14,500 tons.

The difference isn’t because Chinese livestock are significantly over-drugged, though there’s no good data on what doses are being administered to them versus what is used in the US. Rather, it’s that China has so much more livestock: The country is the world’s leading producer of pork and second leading producer of broiler chickens.

That said, is China instituting a ban? If so, it has slipped by any major Western media covering the country’s Ministry of Agriculture. Short (even shorter than the above) reports appeared Sept. 16 in Poultry Production News (English) and Sept. 9 on a site called (English and Mandarin). Nothing shows up in searches of Xinhua, China Daily, or the English-language site of the ministry. (Mandarin, sadly, is not one of my languages. Yet.) Plugging the text of the above story into Google yields nothing, either.

Yet China’s domestic media are not shy about covering food safety. In August, Xinhua reported on two prosecutions for selling bean sprouts dosed with antibiotics, and in April it hammered the Chinese government about widespread contamination in pork. And the Chinese government has been paying at least some attention to the problem of growth promoters: As far back as 2002, a representative of the ministry’s feed research center told a World Health Organization meeting that the government had made antibiotic overuse in agriculture a priority in two national plans.

Assume for the sake of argument that China did institute such a ban at the ministerial level. Would it matter?

As Jason Gale reported at Bloomberg just yesterday, China is fighting, so far without much success, to rein in illegal sales of antibiotics for human medical use. As the New York Times reported in May, the country is having an equally difficult time enforcing food safety. And as I’ve talked about here repeatedly, international disapproval, internal regulation and exposes by China’s own media have done nothing to stem a flood of food-contamination scandals (glow-in-the-dark meat, exploding watermelons, bleached mushrooms, poisoned rice — the list goes on).

If China did institute a ban on growth promoters, it could set an international model and put itself, in food-safety terms, far ahead of the United States. But that model would only be worth following if the country were able to not only enact a regulation, but enforce it, against a style of unfettered agricultural capitalism that resembles the United States before Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle and changed food safety forever.

If there are any China-watchers or international trade experts among readers, I’d love to hear what you know, or hypothesize, about what’s going on.

Update: The executive director of the IATP (who started all this with their blog post yesterday) happens to be in China now and posted some important reflections at their blog. While noting that it’s National Day in China, when everyone goes home for a holiday and it’s difficult to conduct business, he says he’ll be looking for answers to these questions:

Will all non-therapeutic uses be banned or just growth promotion?

Will the ban apply only to domestic production, or also to imported meat?

Although this should be a good thing for animal and human health, what impact will it have on the structure of animal farming in China?

I’ll hope for a Q&A with him when he returns.

Update 2: On Google+, Byron Huang left this thoughtful comment:

I doubt this would be possible. With 1.5B population, the pressure to keep ample animal food supply is consistent and a really problem for the Chinese. Ban the antibiotic using in the animal feed would no doubt have a big impact on the output in the short run. Not that China is having a food shortage, but already people are complaining about the how expansive pork is. After the ban, it would drive the price even higher, this would in turn cause social unrest, and that is the worst nightmare for the Chinese government. Second, the industry for food production in China largely rely on the small and individual farmer. Right now, in order to keep the food price down, the farmer’s margin is already very low, if this policy went into place, this would hurt the output, thus cause further financial burdens for the farmers. It is unlikely they will be able to keep the antibiotic away for long.

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