New Study May Increase Number of Organic Poultry Farms

When a human suffers from a bacterial infection, a doctor will prescribe an anti-biotic to kill the bacteria. After years of certain bacteria being treated with the same antibiotic, some bacteria begin to develop a resistance to the treatment. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can lead to uncontrollable widespread disease.

One major concern regarding antibiotic use is its presence in animal farming in the United States. The use of antibiotics in the food of animals raised for consumption has been proven to add to the increase of antibiotic-resistance bacteria.

A recent study from the University of Maryland School of Public Health presents data indicating that traditional poultry farms that have switched to organic farming and no longer use antibiotics have lower amounts of antibiotic resistant bacteria.  This is the first study to arise at this result.

Dr. Amy R. Sapkota, the lead researcher on the project, compared levels of enterococci bacteria on a conventional farm to those on a convention farm that has become an organic farm. The original hypothesis was that there would be some difference in the level, but nothing as significant as what was found. 

Enterococci bacteria was chosen because it is found in most poultry and they are pathogens that are often found in hospital patients. Also, the antibiotics given to the poultry on a traditional farm actively fight against the Enterococci.

“We initially hypothesized that we would see some differences in on-farm levels of antibiotic-resistant enterococci when poultry farms transitioned to organic practices. But we were surprised to see that the differences were so significant across several different classes of antibiotics even in the very first flock that was produced after the transition to organic standards,” says Sapkota.

To test their hypothesis, the team of researchers from Pennsylvania State University, University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University led by Sapkota studied ten traditional farms and ten farms that recently became organic farms. The team checked for the enterococci bacteria in litter, feed, and water, followed by checking the resistance of the bacteria to 17 antibiotics.

According to the study, enterococci bacteria were found in the litter, feed, and water on all farms participating in the test. It found that the percentages of antibiotic resistant bacteria were statistically significantly lower among newly converted organic farms compared to traditional farming practices.  Forty-two percent of the E. faecalis strain of enterococci bacteria from traditional poultry farms was resistant to multiple antibiotics, while ten percent of the strain was resistant on the organic farms. The other strain, E. faecium, showed an antibiotic resistance of eighty-four percent and seventeen percent in traditional and organic farms respectively.

“While we know that the dynamics of antibiotic resistance differ by bacterium and antibiotic, these findings show that, at least in the case of enterococci, we begin to reverse resistance on farms even among the first group of animals that are grown without antibiotics. Now we need to look forward and see what happens over 5 years, 10 years in time,” explains Sapkota.

These bacteria are of concern because they could be resistant to all available antibiotics and become a public health hazard. This means that if an animal or human becomes infected, it is difficult to treat.

In 2008, there were approximately 4.8 million acres of farmland dedicated to organic farming. Of 4.8 million acres, 2.1 million of the acres were dedicated to rangeland and pasture, the category where organic poultry farms fit. Ultimately, this study shows that transitioning from traditional farms to organic farms may be safer for public health. There was a fifteen percent average increase in organic farming between 2002 and 2008. This study bodes well for an increase in the number of traditional farms transitioning to organic farms.

Photo credit: ars.usda.gov/is/np/fnrb/fnrb0106.htm

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