Retired cardiologist Jeff Ritterman estimates that close to eighty percent of the United States’ antibiotics are used on livestock.
“That part of the antibiotic resistance story is largely hidden for docs,” said Ritterman.
But now, a growing number of doctors have pegged the widespread use of antibiotics on livestock as a chief factor in the rising rate of drug-resistant bacteria strains that are complicating treatment of infections in humans.
Attempting to prevent disease from spreading in cramped conditions and encourage animal growth, factory farms load livestock with antibiotics, effectively turning the animals into living petri dishes. As the antibiotics eliminate populations of bacteria, they eliminate competition, allowing strains unaffected by the drugs to thrive.
Antibiotic-resistant strains have devastating effects for humans, as seen with methicillin-resistant Staphyloccocus aureus, commonly known as MRSA, which has eclipsed AIDS in number of deaths per year.
“It’s a helpless feeling when your patient dies of an infection that you can’t cure,” said Ritterman.
The sprawling scope of who’s affected by these “untouchable” strains only worsens the problem. Even those who forgo factory meat for locally raised goods—a sliver of the population, according to the Worldwatch Institute, whose 2006 figures estimate that 74 percent of the world’s poultry, 43 percent of beef, and 68 percent of eggs are produced in unsanitary, crowded conditions—can contract antibiotic-resistant infections through the air or water.
And that, of course, makes for a public health threat.
“I kept seeing more and more cases of antibiotic resistance at the hospital. It doesn’t make sense to keep doing it the way we’re doing it, not to mention that cases of resistance are costly,” said Diane Imrie, director of nutrition services at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vermont.
The trouble doesn’t stop there. Some critics suggest that to promote animal growth and get them ready for grocery stores faster, farms dole out low doses of antibiotics, levels that, to bacteria, are akin to immunization shots. In other words, whatever doesn’t kill the bacteria makes them stronger.
But while health professionals creep closer to a consensus against factory farm antibiotic use, the food-animal production industry vehemently disagrees.
“We don’t really think that the antibiotics given to animals in feed are big contributors to the problems in human medicine,” argued Richard Carnevale, vice president for regulatory, scientific, and international affairs at the Animal Health Institute, an organization that represents pharmaceutical companies.
“Antibiotics are used to keep animals as healthy as possible, and healthy animals are at the base of a safe food system,” he added, taking an economic swipe at critics by suggesting that removing antibiotics would “increase production costs.”
Opponents pooh-pooh that suggestion, noting that the European Union has banned the use of antibiotics to bulk up animals without any noticeable drop in its industry. The only rate that has dropped, according to a Danish study, is bacterial resistance. A United States study published in Environmental Health Perspectives last week suggest something similar, finding that eliminating antibiotics in livestock significantly reduced antibiotic resistance.
However, even with doctors throwing their support behind the anti-antibiotic movement, activists acknowledge that government still holds the key to change.
“A doctor may be able to help individuals in their [sic] office, but changes in policy can lift the health of an entire population. We need to really advance American medicine to the policy stage,” Ritterman said. “Doctors are trained to see the world through a health lens. Politicians, businessmen and economists are not.”
The Pew Campaign on Human Health & Industrial Farming has sponsored a petition urging President Obama and the US Food and Drug Administration to “protect the health of our children by keeping their commitments and taking action regarding antibiotic use on industrial farms.”
Sign the petition here to join the battle against livestock antibiotic use.
Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Cow_horned_portrait.jpg