By Pamela Deleon and Rachel Dreskin
The development of antibiotics was a massive medical breakthrough. People infected by once life-threatening diseases such as tuberculosis can in many cases now be cured with a simple prescription for antibiotics. But somewhere along the way we started over using antibiotics to the point where the bacteria began forming new highly dangerous, antibiotic-resistant strains that are a major threat to public health.
Antibiotics and farm animals
Several decades ago, the factory farming industry figured out that administering antibiotics to farm animals made them less prone to sickness and disease. So, they began routinely giving them antibiotics – and lots of them. According to the FDA, a staggering 80% of all antibiotics used in the United States are consumed by animal agriculture.
For years, the public health and medical community have warned against the overuse of antibiotics in factory farms. Despite these warnings, antibiotic usage continues to be a major threat to our health, and very little is being done about it. In a recent CNN op-ed article titled “How a cow could kill you: New antibiotics guidelines still fail to protect the public”, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter and John Hopkins University Environmental Science Professor Dr. Robert S. Lawrence warn that although hundreds of scientific studies have confirmed the link between antibiotic misuse in food animals and superbug infections in humans, industry lobbyists have blocked any significant act that would address this issue.1
Take for example the recent outbreak of Salmonella Heidelburg that has been linked to the poultry giant, Foster Farms. The CDC reported that a total of 430 people from 23 different states were infected by this antibiotic-resistant “superbug” bacteria that can be traced back to three California Foster Farms locations.2
Early findings from the CDC have shown that an alarming 56% of individuals who have been infected from the outbreak, who took part in the study, exhibited resistance to one or more antibiotic drugs.2 This means that antibiotics that have traditionally been effective in treating salmonella infections did not work for over half of those affected by this dangerous strain.
Types of food poisoning that could have been easily treated with antibiotics in the past can be deadly today. Given that most large-scale factory farms, like Foster Farms in California, send their meat products all over the country, and sometimes all over the world, outbreaks are visibly becoming increasingly more dangerous and far-reaching.
What we can do right now
Although data on how much antibiotics are actually given to animals grown in factory farms is a well guarded industry secret, FDA has a reported 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics
were sold for use in meat and poultry production in 2011.3 Daily use of antimicrobial drugs on food animals is commonplace in the meat industry even with mounting evidence from scientific literature that supports the idea that misuse and overuse can result in evolved antibiotic-resistant bacterias.3 Organic farms, on the other hand, only use antibiotic for treatment of diagnosed diseases, and they use it sparingly. Not only is organic farming safer for the animals in those farms, but ultimately safer for the public’s health.
By supporting humane and sustainable farms, you are lessening the demand for animal agriculture that is heavily supported by the irresponsible and routine overuse of antibiotics. Find farmers in your area or visit your local green market. Get to know your farmers, ask them questions and become knowledgeable about your food choices. Unlike many industrial farms that spend millions trying to keep the truth from the public, sustainably-minded farmers are happy to talk and answer any questions you may have.
- Slaughter, L. M. and R. S. Lawrence (2013) How a cow could kill you: New antibiotic guidelines still fail to protect public. http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/27/opinion/fda-antibiotics-guidelines-opinion
- (2013). Multistate Outbreak of Multidrug-Resistant Salmonella Heidelberg Infections Linked to Foster Farms Brand Chicken. http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/heidelberg-10-13/
- Kim, B. F., et al. (2013). Industrial Food Animal Production in America: Examining the Impact of the Pew Commission’s Priority Recommendations, John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-a-livable-future/_pdf/research/clf_reports/CLF-PEW-for%20Web.pdf