Antibiotics are as close to a ‘cure-all’ as we have. Since Fleming’s discover of penicillin in 1929, numerous types of antibiotics have been developed to treat numerous types of illness, from everyday throat infections to life-threatening problems like pneumonia. However, they are far from perfect. One of the dangers of antibiotics is the development of resistance – and if we become completely resistant, we could see ourselves taking a step back in time, to a place where people die from even the most common infections. The worrying thing is, we are getting closer to that truth every single day. The bacteria that causes infections are becoming more and more resistant to more and more types of antibiotics and it is becoming an epidemic that we should be more concerned about. The question is though, why are we becoming so resistant and how can we stop it?
The Rise of the Superbug
The rise of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, is the perfect case in point. Maryn Mckenna, author of Superbug, states that MRSA kills around 18,000 people and causes more than 365,000 hospitalizations annually. When looking at all antibiotic-resistant infections, that number rises to an astonishing 900,000. It’s a financial problem too. Antibiotic-resistant infections are more problematic and take longer to treat, costing around $20 billion annually in direct treatment costs, and a further $35 billion in missed work days and other costs. Whilst hospital-related cases having been dropping in recent years, cases of non-healthcare associated MRSA have been increasing since its first appearance in 1995 and the worst of these cases, in terms of prevalence, severity, and difficulty to treat, is LA-MRSA – or livestock-associated MRSA.
The main reason that antibiotics stop working, and that bacteria becomes resistant, is overuse. Doctors are advised not to prescribe antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, for fear that patients may become resistant to antibiotic treatments. However, in recent years, a far more sinister danger has become apparent: the use of antibiotics in factory farming. Antibiotic use is becoming more and more prevalent within farming and it is estimated that 80 per cent of all the antibiotics produced in the US are for animal consumption – that’s four times the amount used by humans. This increase means that animals are effectively being bred to be resistant and that resistance is being passed to us, both through proximity to animals and through the meat that we eat. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy warns that “[r]outine antibiotic use in food animal production likely worsens the epidemic of resistance and action must be taken” [emphasis added].
The Drug-Addled Benefits
The question remains, if regular antibiotic use in animals is dangerous to humans, why do it? Of course, sick animals need to be treated but factory farmers give daily doses to their animals, whether they are sick or not. One reason is that the over-crowded and unclean conditions on farms means that infections are pervasive and spread rapidly. Thus, rather than improve conditions, farmers add antibiotics to feed in order to prevent any possible infection that might (or might not) occur. This daily dose has the added benefit of promoting weight gain in the animals, making it a financially attractive prospect for farmers. Working on, or living near, an industrial farm alone will have an impact on your health, as studies show that those who come in contact with industrial farms have a higher rate of drug resistance than others, but it is the resistance that comes to us through meat that is the most alarming.
The Dangers of the Daily Dose
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report that around ten per cent of all chicken breasts sold at retail have salmonella that is resistant to at least one type of antibiotic, and that almost half of all chickens have antibiotic-resistant campylobacter. Similarly, around 88% of chickens grown for meat are fed Roxarsone, a drug that contains arsenic, as it encourages growth and improves meat-color. Arsenic is a harmful carcinogen for humans and can cause cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and neurological deficit. It’s nonsensical that we would add harmful carcinogens to our own food but sense, it seems, along with health and longevity, don’t come into play when up against big industry, Big Pharma, and big profit.
What’s even more frightening is that certain important drugs are effectively being lost to the resistance bred through animal feed. Researchers at Princeton University have demonstrated that Cipro, an antibiotic used to treat food poisoning, has become endangered since 1996, when a similar drug was introduced to farming. Before the FDA’s approval for farms to use this drug, resistance to Cipro was negligible – now, resistance stands at around 20%. Similarly, drugs used to treat illnesses like meningitis, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and HIV are now used for livestock – and are under threat from the growing resistance. The World Health Organisation state that these medicines are vitally important as they are the absolute last defence against certain illnesses and yet, we are losing them in return for fatter animals and for not having to clean up our farms.
An Unacceptable Response
With such overwhelming evidence regarding the dangers of regularly feeding antibiotics to livestock, there should be a similarly overwhelming response. But there is not. Although there are some small non-profit organisations and a handful of government officials pushing for change, they are fighting against Big Pharma, who supply four times the amount of drugs to animals as to humans, and big industry, who want to raise fat, profitable livestock. When prompted to respond, the FDA released a voluntary guidance notice that is neither legally binding nor much use. The notice accepts that dangers of regular antibiotic use and suggests that farmers should not use these drugs as a form of increased production. Farmers, then, are advised that drugs should not be used to encourage growth – a step towards progress, maybe. However, industry may still use antibiotics for prevention as well as treatment of infections and thus, the daily dose can continue, the problem remains the same – and the farmers get the production benefits by default. Also, by allowing farmers to use treatments as a preventative measure, they are essentially permitted to leave their farms in the squalid, over-crowded, dirty conditions in which they exist today.
Such minimal response is astonishing given the wealth of evidence that we face; and when what little response received is merely optional for farmers, there is little or no incentive for industry to change. Feeding livestock a daily dose of antibiotics is dangerous – both for our financial structure, our health, our fight against disease, and even our lifestyles. We don’t want to go back to the dark pre-penicillin days and we don’t want to watch our loved ones die from what used to be previously easy to cure infections. But it doesn’t look like things are going to change any time soon. The biggest thing likely to prompt action is commercial response – if customers won’t buy contaminated products, industry won’t want to sell them. So next time you’re in the supermarket, pick up organic meat and choose foods that are ethically sourced and antibiotic-free. Let’s force their hand, because the only way that industry will feel the impact, is by hitting their sales.
 Cited by Bittman, M., Breeding Bacteria on Factory Farms, [online]. Available: <opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/09/breeding-bacteria-on-factory-farms>, [accessed 10/08/2013]
 Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 2012. No Time To Lose, [online]. Available: www.iatp.org/files/2012_11_08_AntibioticsBiliography_DW_JL_Long_hyperlinks.pdf, [accessed 10/08/2013]
 Mole, B., 2013. MRSA: Farming Up Trouble, [online]. Available: www.nature.com/news/mrsa-farming-up-trouble_1.13427, [accessed 10/08/2013]
 Bittman, op. cit.
 Harvey, F., 2013. Is The Rise in Antibiotic Use on Farms a Threat to Humans?, [online]. Available: www.theguardian.com/society/2013/jun/11/is-rise-farm-antibiotic-use-threat-humans, [accessed 10/08/2013]
 Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, op. cit.
 Philpott, T., 2012. FDA’s New Rules on Factory Farm Antibiotics Are Flawed – And Voluntary, [online]. Available: www.motherjones.com/tom_philpott/2012/04/fda-factor-farms-antibiotics, [accessed 10/08/2013]
 Bittman, op. cit.
 Bittman, op. cit.
 Philpott, op. cit.
A FARM-LOAD OF PROBLEMS: WHY AN ANIMAL’S DAILY DOSE MIGHT BE KILLING YOU by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Victoria Froud, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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