Last June the FDA released a report entitled The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals, which was a draft guideline for the safe use of antibiotics in the food industry. The report goes on to state that low doses of antibiotics that is currently administered to livestock provides the ideal breading ground for antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This “sub-therapeutic” use of antibiotics is often administered to entire flocks or herds as part of their feed as a preventive measure for diseases, accelerate weight gain and, is not disease-specific.
Low-Grade Antibiotic Usage Give Rise to Superbugs
Even a single bacterium that is resistant to these antibiotics can mutate to form a ‘superbug‘. Antibiotic resistance can very quickly percolate through the food chain and through meat and other food products ultimately affecting humans. Animals that carry resistant strains are a direct hazard to those that work with them. The use of antibiotics in food animals selects for bacteria resistant to antibiotics used in humans and these might spread via the food to humans and cause human infection.
Over the past year there have been several instances of contaminated meat, poultry and animal products like eggs finding their way into people’s kitchens. Most of these are infected with E.Coli or Salmonella. Cargill’s recent recall of 36 million pounds of turkey is an excellent example of the seriousness of the situation. In 2009, the FDA released another report stating that 29 million pounds of antibiotics is being administered to livestock. Yet nobody seems to be doing much about it.
Why Are Antibiotics Used so Extensively?
[/captionIn order to understand why, it is essential to understand that antibiotic administration is just a small cog in the giant wheel that is industrialized food production. In most factory farms, antibiotics are essential because the animals are packed so close together, often in unsanitary conditions with poor ventilation. Any disease outbreak would result in massive losses, therefore antibiotics are administered as a preventive. In all CAFOs, cattle are fed corn because it is available in abundance and it is cheap. This diet does not sit well in the rumen of the cow, which is an animal that has adapted to eat grass. This causes intestinal infection that require antibiotics to suppress. Dairy cows kept in factory farms are milked several times a day and the contact with the milking machine causes udder infection called mastitis. This disease cause the US dairy industry $1.7 to 2 billion each year and it is only treated with antibiotics.
What Can be Done?
The problems associated with industrial farming is not unique to the US, this unfortunate system of growing livestock is fast permeating in other countries, thereby exponentially increasing the incidences of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Unless there are severe control methods placed on factory farms, this problem cannot be solved. First, CAFO size must be reduced. Second, animals should be kept outdoors for longer periods and waste should be managed. Only sick animals should be treated with antibiotics. Organic practices should be encouraged. Unless there is a planned phase-out of CAFOs. It is of course, far easier to talk of these things but several farms that do follow these methods have little to no need for antibiotic administration.
There have already been incidences of resistant bugs that severely threaten human health and result in death of hospitalized patients. Health is a default state of Nature. When food production methods go along with what is natural, then animals tend to be healthy, thus reducing the need for external assistance. Naysayers will say that organic methods are financially intensive, but what about prevention of antibiotic resistance? Antibiotic-resistant infections costs the US healthcare system over $20 billion annually. Surely this can be diverted towards coming up with a food system that actually works.
Image Credit: USGS, CAFO Hogs, Wikimedia Commons