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Antibiotics and Farming

I've long been troubled by the idea that as antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread, the farm industry is allowed to give antibiotics to cattle, swine, and poultry merely to accelerate their growth and reduce mortality due to unhealthy living conditions. But "Pig Out", an op-ed piece in The New York Times this week, opened my eyes:

Of the 60 million pigs in the United States, over 95 percent are continuously confined in metal buildings, including the almost five million sows in crates. In such setups, feed is automatically delivered to animals who are forced to urinate and defecate where they eat and sleep. Their waste festers in large pits a few feet below their hooves. Intense ammonia and hydrogen sulfide fumes from these pits fill pigs' lungs and sensitive nostrils. No straw is provided to the animals because that would gum up the works (as it would if you tossed straw into your toilet)...

The stress, crowding and contamination inside confinement buildings foster disease, especially respiratory illnesses. In addition to toxic fumes, bacteria, yeast and molds have been recorded in swine buildings at a level more than 1,000 times higher than in normal air. To prevent disease outbreaks (and to stimulate faster growth), the hog industry adds more than 10 million pounds of antibiotics to its feed, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates. This mountain of drugs -- a staggering three times more than all antibiotics used to treat human illnesses -- is a grim yardstick of the wretchedness of these facilities.

Once more, for emphasis: the hog industry alone uses three times the amount of all antibiotics used to treat human illnesses. We haven't even gotten to cattle and poultry yet. This is from a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS):

[T]he quantities of antibiotics used in animal agriculture dwarf those used in human medicine. Nontherapeutic livestock use in chickens, pigs, and cows accounts for 8 times more antibiotics than human medicine, which is using only 3 million pounds per year...

Until now, health officials and citizens had to rely on incomplete industry estimates to design effective responses to the antibiotic-resistance problem. According to the new UCS report, "Hogging It: Estimates of Antimicrobial Abuse in Livestock", the total use of antibiotics in healthy livestock has climbed from 16 million pounds in the mid-1980s to 25 million pounds today. Of that, approximately 10 million pounds are used in hogs, 11 million pounds in poultry, and 4 million pounds in cattle.

So when we count poultry and cattle, nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock rises to eight times total human usage.

Keep Antibiotics Working is an advocacy group founded to reduce and eliminate the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock. They have a page on the scientific evidence for the idea that "that bacteria are developing antibiotic resistance as a result of antibiotic use in animal agriculture". By my count, this page lists 31 studies that address the links between agricultural abuse of antibiotics and increased antibiotic resistance in human pathogens -- as well as dozens of other studies on related topics.

What is the human toll of this? A report by Keep Antibiotics Working notes the following:

  • Resistant bacterial infections increase health care costs by at least $4 billion per year in the U.S.
  • One out of six cases of Campylobacter infection, the most common cause of food poisoning, is resistant to fluoroquinolones, the drugs most often used to treat severe food-borne illness. Just six years ago, before fluoroquinolones were approved for use in poultry, such resistance was negligible.
  • Campylobacter accounts for 2.4 million illnesses and over 120 deaths each year in the U.S.
  • One out of three cases of human infection by a particular strain of Salmonella bacteria is resistant to more than five different antibiotics. Salmonella causes 1.4 million illnesses and 580 deaths annually in the U.S.
  • Nearly all strains of Staphlococcus infections in the U.S. are resistant to penicillin, and many are resistant to newer drugs.
In the case of Campylobacter, one could infer that at least some of the 120 people who die from it each year in the US die because the fluoroquinolones they're given are ineffective against the infection, as a result of use in the poultry industry. This is an inference, but I'd be surprised if it weren't true. The same could be true of some portion of the 580 people who die from Salmonella each year in the US. (See the original article linked above for citations for all these statistics.)

When are we as a country going to become angry about this and put a stop to it?


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This problem would be solved very quickly and efficiently if enough people publicly stopped eating meat until the industry changed its ways.

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