By Yoon Won-sup
Consumers Korea, a civic group seeking to protect consumers' right announced surprising news a few months ago that beef in Korea, whether it is domestic or imported, is the most expensive in the world. Korean and imported beef were 55,800 won and 54,500 won per kilogram on average, respectively.
The civic group pointed that inefficient and complicated logistics is the main reason for the high price of livestock in Korea.
Probably, another reason for the high price, though it is not the most important factor, is that livestock farmers in Korea spend more money than anyone else in the world in feeding antibiotics to their pigs and cows, according to a recent report by civic groups on animals.
Korean livestock farmers spent 0.91 kilograms per one-ton of livestock in 2002, which is about three times more than the Japan's 0.35 kilograms, according to a report of the Korean Animal Welfare Association.
The use of antibiotics was followed by the United States with 0.14 kilograms, New Zealand with 0.04 kilograms, Denmark with 0.04 kilograms and Sweden with 0.03. The association conducted the survey with the support of the U.K.-based civic group, the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
The survey result indicates that a variety of livestock produced in Korea are tainted with antibiotics, which raises a new problem because the antibiotics in animals are transferred to people who eat them.
Economics of Giving Antibiotics to Animals
The Korean Animal Welfare Association (KAWA) said in its report that the unclean, enclosed and artificial environment for livestock requires farmers to administer various medicines.
``It is almost impossible for animals, who live in a crowded environment where fresh air is filtered, not to depend on medicine for survival,'' the report said. ``Farmers administer antibiotics in order to improve the immune system of the animals to ensure their survival, but the overuse of antibiotics leads to human's development of resistance to certain diseases.''
Farmers administer antibiotics regularly even when livestock are not ill to prevent animals from getting a disease.
Actually, overuse of antibiotics is an economical matter. Administering antibiotics pays off for farmers.
``We know giving antibiotics to my pigs are not a good idea ultimately, but if my pigs get sick or they die due to some disease, we lose money,'' a 38-year-old livestock raiser whose last name is Kim in Paju, Gyeonggi Province said. ``It is much more economical to buy antibiotics than to see my pigs sick or dead.''
But the problem with the administering antibiotics has many negative aspects.
These days it is common for doctors to find patients who are resistant to certain medicines because they have eaten meat containing antibiotics. According to doctors' surveys, vegetarians tend to have less resistance to medicines related to antibiotics.
In addition, the more concentrated the farms of livestock, the more likely epidemics such as foot and mouth disease and pig cholera are to develop. For example, when foot and mouth disease took place in the United Kingdom in 1967, the incident was limited to a certain area but in 2001 the disease spread across the nation in two weeks, the report said.
Particularly, considering the increased number of foot and mouth diseases, avian flu and pig cholera in Korea since 2002, KAWA said the amount of antibiotics given to animals would have also increased.
`Awful' Environment of Livestock
The association attributed Korea's No. 1 use of antibiotics to the poor environment livestock are kept in. It conducted another survey, visiting 11 pig farms and 7 abattoirs in the nation, and concluded them as being ``awful.''
Video footage from the association shows that pigs can't move freely in their pens because they are so crowded, and the floor is full of excrement. They eat and sleep with the foul environment 24 hours a day.
Farmers on small breeding farms also removed teeth and cut the tails of baby pigs _ without an anesthetic _ to prevent them from leaving scars on each other while fighting. The fights take place regularly because of stress, and scars on pigs lower their price on the market.
Female pigs are forced to give birth two or three times a year in small pens where they cannot move even an inch, the report added.
However, all these poor conditions form a vicious circle: the poor environment of livestock aggravates their health, which requires the use of antibiotics even before they get sick.
Government to Introduce Measures
Aware of the need to take action, two weeks ago the government finally announced a package to fix the situation.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry said it will give subsidies to farmers who raise livestock in an environment-friendly way including not using antibiotics.
The ministry will select ``environmental-friendly farms'' and give them cash over three to five years in order to support their environmental-friendly facilities.
If farmers produce organic livestock or raise them without antibiotics, they will receive another cash payment, according to the ministry.
Park Hae-sang, vice minister of agriculture and forestry, said that the ministry will basically improve food safety by expanding food control process from production to the logistics of livestock farming.
He said that the ministry will designate over half of the total livestock farms under the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system by 2017. The system is a preventive approach to food safety that addresses physical, chemical and biological hazards as a means of prevention rather than finished product inspection.
The government will also financially support the installment of clean breeding farms on the condition that the farms adopt the HACCP system within three years.
The first recipient of the benefit came out early last week as a chicken farm in Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province received a certificate as an antibiotics-free chicken producer from the government.