BCC students aid MassPIRG efforts to combat use of antibiotics in farm animals

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PITTSFIELD >> Edward Laird and Christopher Tague spent their spring break knocking on doors.

Every day, the Berkshire Community College students canvassed homes in Eastern Massachusetts on behalf of Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group in its fundraising campaign against the use of antibiotics in farm animals.

"I could be on the beach over spring break," Laird said, "but I wanted to make a difference in my community."

He and Tague were among a group of 30 volunteers who fanned out about 3:30 p.m. each day in hopes of hitting about 200 homes.

"People listened," said Tague, who was working in Winchester. "The interactions were mixed on the whole, and not everybody contributed, but a lot of people said they appreciate the work we're doing."

MassPIRG, Tague said, taught him how to make the case without "getting the door slammed in my face."

Antibiotics are added to the feed or drinking water of cattle, hogs, poultry and other food-producing animals to help them gain weight faster or use less food to gain weight, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has been working with farmers to phase out the practice.

The antibiotics end up in the animals' waste and are spread to produce and water supplies as well.

"Over 70 percent of antibiotics sold are not being used to cure illness, but on farms, the majority of them factory farms," said Michael Basmajian, the local MassPIRG organizer. "Overuse of antibiotics creates superbugs. They cause illnesses that can't be cured. So, the result is an increased risk that the antibiotics won't work when people or animals are sick and actually need them."

MassPIRG has been working to persuade major buyers on the meat market, like the fast-food restaurants, to stop the practice in hopes of triggering a change all along the supply chain.

The initiative also has substantial support among the staffs at BCC and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

MassPIRG demonstrated how this works during the present campaign, after McDonald's committed last year to eventually purging its meat of antibiotics. Almost immediately, Tyson Foods made a similar resolution.

Recently, MassPIRG helped log another success: Subway made the same commitment to eliminate antibiotics from their foods, and is already marketing a antibiotic-free chicken sandwich.

"Since we started putting pressure on them, we've made an impact on the meat industry," Tague said.

Abiyel Larios, another BCC student working on the campaign, explained the effectiveness of the tactic.

"There's a growing number of people who will buy in response to marketing antibiotic-free meat," Larios said. "Targeting fast-food then hits the suppliers. The suppliers will start to see the status quo is failing and they'll have to change. Once that starts to happen, you can begin to see a future where this destructive practice is no more."

The next targets, according to Basmajian, include major fast-food chains Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The campaign will consist of social media pressure — one sign being held aloft by both BCC and MCLA students in the latest images reads, "I'm hungry for a bucket of chicken raised without antibiotics" — and gauging public opinion on the issue.

The MCLA Biology Club is featured in one of the recent campaigns.

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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