Animals, antibiotics, and you

A few recent must-read pieces on antibiotics, farming, and the food chain.

From The New York Times:

Cows on Drugs:

… Even [30 years ago], this nontherapeutic use of antibiotics was being linked to the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria that infect humans. To the leading microbiologists on the F.D.A.’s advisory committee, it was clearly a very bad idea to fatten animals with the same antibiotics used to treat people. But the American Meat Institute and its lobbyists in Washington blocked the F.D.A. proposal. …

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, 70 percent of this use is in animals that are healthy but are vulnerable to transmissible diseases because they live in crowded and unsanitary conditions.

In testimony to Congress last summer, Joshua Sharfstein, the principal deputy commissioner of the F.D.A., estimated that 90,000 Americans die each year from bacterial infections they acquire in hospitals. About 70 percent of those infections are caused by bacteria that are resistant to at least one powerful antibiotic.

That’s why the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Pharmacists Association, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the American Public Health Association and the National Association of County and City Health Officials are urging Congress to phase out the nontherapeutic use in livestock of antibiotics that are important to humans.

Antibiotic resistance is an expensive problem. A person who cannot be treated with ordinary antibiotics is at risk of having a large number of bacterial infections, and of needing to be treated in the hospital for weeks or even months. The extra costs to the American health care system are as much as $26 billion a year, according to estimates by Cook County Hospital in Chicago and the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, a health policy advocacy group. …

From Corpus Callosum:

The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act

… This sort of thing is politically unpopular, because the people who would benefit, do not have an strong lobby unified on the issue.  And the people who would have to adjust their operation, do have such a lobby.  It could cause some short-term difficulties for those who make a living by raising and selling livestock and poultry.  We need to acknowledge that some of those folk already are struggling.  But the industry would adapt and rebalance. After all, they do have a product that people want, and the people still are ready, willing, and able to buy.

The use of antibiotics in farming operations clearly leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. This causes problems when those antibiotic-resistant pathogens get into people. …

The argument would be strengthened if we knew what fraction of that $26 billion was attributable to agricultural use of antibiotics.  That apparently is not known, and it is not obvious to me how it could be determined.  Even so, the figure does suggests that the economic benefits of of the legislation could offset, at least partially, the losses in the agricultural sector.  Furthermore, I suspect that this legislation could provide a boost to smaller agricultural operations.  This would be good.  Unfortunately, the small operators don’t have a powerful voice in Washington. …

and from Vet Blog:

Study Shows Antibiotics Used in Livestock May be Making Their Way Into Our Food in an Unexpected Fashion

… The addition of antibiotics to animal feed for no purpose other than increasing profit never sat right with me. Over use of antibiotics is bad for society in general. And I certainly am not interested in getting a dose of antibiotics every time I eat a burger.

Congress currently is considering legislation to restrict the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in food animal production. I hope it passes. I am at odds with many food animal veterinarians as well as the American Veterinary Medical Association in this regard. Click here to read more.

But yet again without seeming to realize the irony, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s March 1, 2010 issue gave ammunition to opponents of non-therapeutic antibiotic use (see yesterday’s post for more about the generally ironic nature of the March 1 JAVMA).

Page 500 contained an article entitled “Researchers study antibicrobial uptake in crops.” The subtitle says it all: “Vegetables took in some antimicrobials from antimicrobial-spiked manure”. Antimicrobials are also known as antibiotics.

Here’s the line of thought: cows are fed antibiotics in order to increase profit. Some of the antibiotics wind up in the cow’s feces, also known as manure. Manure is a leading crop fertilizer — especially for organic crops. Now some people are wondering whether the antibiotics that are fed to cows in order to increase profits are showing up in the organic salads of people who go out of their way to avoid eating those very antibiotics in the first place. The irony just goes on and on. …

On the human health level: as someone who was born allergic to Penicillin, then developed allergies to literally all other classes of antibiotics over the course of my adult life – in part, it’s likely, as a result of overexposure – I hope to see this bill pass.

Buying exclusively antibiotic-free food is not always feasible (depending on where you are), it’s hella expensive, and the truth is it may not even be possible any more.

This is not good for any of us, in terms of resistant strains of disease – and it also means that those of us who are allergic to antibiotics are continually exposed to low levels of a dangerous substance that weakens our immune systems on top of living in the extremely at-risk category of people whose medical treatment is already a medieval  “Um, don’t get sick. And stay away from hospitals.”

On the level of animal care, I can just repeat the statement from the NYT:

70 percent of [antibiotic] use is in animals that are healthy but are vulnerable to transmissible diseases because they live in crowded and unsanitary conditions. [My bolds.]

Factory farming is bad for everyone.  

Very bad.

Yes, the alternatives require adjustments from all of us. But really, there isn’t an alternative.


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