Posted on July 7, 2011 - by Zoe Carpenter
Antibiotics revolutionized healthcare when they were introduced in 1946. Now, overuse in industrial feedlots may make them obsolete.
Since 1976, studies have repeatedly demonstrated a connection between dosing healthy livestock with low-level antibiotics and the development of drug resistant bacteria. These “superbugs” cause infections that are nearly impossible to treat. In spite of mounting evidence that antibiotic use in livestock constitutes a serious threat to human health, the FDA continues to shy away from regulating the use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes due to pressure from agricultural and pharmaceutical industry interests.
According to the FDA, 80 percent of antibiotics used in the United States are administered to animals, not humans. In fact, more antibiotics are used on animals in the state of North Carolina than on humans in the entire United States. In 2009, 29.8 million pounds of antibiotics were pumped into livestock across the country.
In most cases, those vast quantities of antibiotics aren’t given to sick animals. They’re administered preventatively in feed and water at sub-therapeutic levels to help livestock grow faster, and to keep disease from spreading through overcrowded feedlots. Young cattle are fed antibiotics to control the health problems caused by corn-based diets. Piglets are drugged to compensate for early weaning.
Feeding drugs to livestock has been routine practice in agribusiness since the FDA legalized the use of low-dose antibiotics in the 1950s. Antibiotics make it possible to raise animals in unsanitary conditions and with poor nutrition—in other words, they enable the system that brings us cheap food. But the hidden costs are rising.
Feedlots are an ideal breeding ground for resistant microorganisms. Bacteria mutate rapidly, and adapt quickly. Exposing bacteria to non-lethal doses of antibiotics gives microorganisms the opportunity to develop genetic resistance, which protects them from even high doses of the drugs. By feeding animals antibiotics we are facilitating the development of resilient new pathogens.
These superbugs can then be passed from livestock to humans. Farmers are particularly susceptible to infection, but even people who never come into contact with a live pig or a chicken are at risk. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are found in the air and soil around farms, and in meat and produce in grocery stores. A recent study from the Netherlands published in the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases found the same strain of drug-resistant E. coli in chickens, chicken meat, and humans, leading the researchers to suggest that resistant bacteria were passed to humans who ate infected poultry. A previous study supported their conclusion.
Antibiotic resistant bacteria can spread to vegetables when feces from infected animals leech into surface and groundwater or are used to fertilize produce. The recent lethal E. coli outbreaks in Europe, which killed over 40 people, were caused by tainted bean sprouts.
Hog farms have also come under scrutiny, thanks to studies showing a high prevalence of a strain of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) in employees and pigs on hog farms. In the United States, more people die from MRSA each year than from AIDS, although the hog barn variant is one of MRSA’s more benign forms.
What to Do?
While a more rigorous food and farm inspection system and proper handling of raw meats and vegetables can diminish some of the threat from contaminated food, the best way to slow the development of superbugs is to halt the prophylactic use of antibiotics. Medical professionals recognize the dangers of over-prescribing antibiotics in humans. Why don’t the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, which lobby hard against any effort to regulate the use of antibiotics in livestock?
With such a huge percentage of the demand for antibiotics created by agribusiness, drug companies have an obvious incentive to promote overuse. And it’s easy for Big Ag to claim that the dense, high-volume feedlots that keep the costs of meat down would be impossible to maintain without antibiotics. But experience shows that antibiotics might not be necessary to produce affordable meat.
The European Union banned the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock in 2006, and some countries are already reporting a decline in antibiotic resistant bacteria. Meat prices, however, haven’t risen. In Denmark, the world’s largest pork exporter, pigs are kept in similar conditions as those in American hog farms. Danish hog farmers have made a few modifications to feed and housing density to account for a 37 percent decrease in overall antibiotic use between 1994 and 2009, but production levels have remained consistent.
With 325,000 Americans hospitalized from food borne illness and 70,00 dying from antibiotic resistant infections each year, it’s time to reconsider our reckless use of precious medicines. In May, a group including the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animals Concern Trust and Public Citizen, filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force the government to prevent the routine addition of antibiotics to animal feed. And a new piece of legislation, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), is gathering steam in Congress.
Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York who holds degrees in microbiology and public health, introduced the bill. PAMTA would force the FDA to reconsider its approval of the use of seven classes of antibiotics in livestock in light of the dangers of resistance within two years of enactment. The bill is supported by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Public Health Association, among others. It is opposed by the National Pork Producers Council.
You can help to limit the dangerous overuse of antibiotics by asking Congress to support the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. The more we use antibiotics, the less effective they become. Sacrificing the power of our medicines for the sake of maintaining the cruel living conditions of American livestock isn’t a worthwhile trade. Our food should make us healthy, not weak.