Antibiotic Overuse in Livestock: A Slow Motion Catastrophe

Topping some 29-million pounds per year, antibiotics given to livestock have reached record numbers with no hints of slowing down.  With superbugs and antibiotic resistance on the rise, everywhere, the implications for public health are staggering.  Primary used as a growth enhancing agent in factory farming, antibiotics help to offset the risk of disease among livestock living in cramped and squalid conditions.  While increasing profitability for farmers, this practice also streamlines the creation of resistant strains of bacteria—or superbugs—that ultimately infect human beings and threaten our ability to treat bacterial infections as a whole.  At the current rate of resistance, it’s not impossible to conceive of a future where some infections become untreatable and result in death.

In the agricultural world, most major classes of human antibiotics are well represented—that is everything from penicillins, cephalosporins, macrolides, to aminoglycosides are available for animal use.  These drugs, in their human forms, are used to treat the majority of bacterial illnesses—from strep throat to C. difficile infections.  Considering bacteria’s handy-dandy ability to swap resistance factors, it’s hardly surprising that antibiotics are beginning to lose potency among human patients.  As a 2003 Danish study put it, ‘humans and animals share overlapping reservoirs of resistance [to antibiotics]’.  The same study demonstrated the idea that resistant strains could jump from animals fed antibiotics to humans.  The bacterial strain of choice, an enterococci, which was isolated from human beings was able to demonstrate resistance to one of the strongest, last line antibiotics available to medicine: vancomycin.  Interestingly, after the EU banned the offending feed product, levels of resistance in animals, food, and people began to decrease. 

Likewise, raw, store-bought meat is another important source of resistant strains within the human community.  In a Maryland-based study, 378 samples of Campylobacter from retail meats were analysed.  The majority showed at least some resistance to several major, mainstream antibiotics.  Campylobacter is a major source of food poisoning—resulting in severe, often bloody, diarrhea and painful cramps.  Similar data exists for other common food-bourne bacteria, such as e. coli and salmonella.

Although the exact numbers are unknown, it’s estimated that approximately 80% of all antibiotics manufactured, today, are used in livestock—a number that far out-strips any legitimate medical usage.  In response to this truly frightening precedent, many major medical organizations, including the American Nurses Association, have been intensely lobbying the American government to change current policies.  In their own words: “The American Nurses Association has established policies that call on Congress, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and meat producers to promptly phase out the agricultural practices that promote antibiotic resistance.”

Fortunately, a recent series of successful lawsuits, have been putting pressure on the FDA (American Federal Drug Administration) to ban the non-medical use of antibiotics outright.  A US district court judge, as of 2012, for example, has ordered the governmental organization to move towards ending the use of antibiotics as an additive in animal feed.  Although it remains to be seen if the FDA cooperates with these rulings, it’s a good symbolic step in the right direction—and a good precedent for further lawsuits.  For the time being, however, the status quo seems to remain.

While most people don’t really think about it, the loss of antibiotic effectiveness is one of the most significant issues of our time—with the potential to shape hundreds of millions of lives.  Under the current agricultural business model, we may be involuntarily entering into a post-antibiotic era, where simple illnesses like strep throat may, once again, lead to death and disability in children, or pneumonia is completely untreatable in the elderly.  Clearly, the time to act is now.

Curtailing antibiotic use in agriculture
FDA Anti biotic usage statistics
Nursing organizations call for phase-out of agricultural practices that promote antibiotic resistance.
Antimicrobial-resistant Campylobacter species from retail raw meats.
Antibiotics in animal feed and their role in resistance development.

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