Antibiotic overuse

Here (PDF) is a document the USDA doesn’t want you to see. It’s what the agency calls a “technical review”—nothing more than a USDA-contracted researcher’s simple, blunt summary of recent academic findings on the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant infections and their link with factory animal farms. The topic is a serious one. A single antibiotic-resistant pathogen, MRSA—just one of many now circulating among Americans—now claims more lives each year than AIDS.

Altogether, the US meat industry uses 29 million pounds of antibiotics every year. To put that number in perspective, consider that we humans in the United States—in all of our prescription fill-ups and hospital stays combined—use just over 7 million pounds per year. Thus the vast bulk of antibiotics consumed in this country, some 80 percent, goes to factory animal farms.

For years, scientists have worried that the industry’s reliance on antibiotics was contributing to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. The European Union took action to curtail routine antibiotic use on farms in 2006 (taking Sweden’s lead, which had banned the practice 20 years before).

But here in the United States, the regulatory approach has been completely laissez-faire—and the meat industry would like to keep it that way. The industry claims that even though antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been found both in confined animals and supermarket meat, there’s simply no evidence that livestock strains are jumping to the human population.

Here is where we get back to that now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t USDA research summary, which reads like a heavily footnoted rebuttal to the industry line. Assembled by Vaishali Dharmarha, a research assistant at the University of Maryland, the report summarizes research from 63 academic papers and government studies. Here are few of her findings:

• “Use and misuse of antimicrobial drugs in food animal production and human medicine is the main factor accelerating antimicrobial resistance.”

• “[F]ood animals, when exposed to antimicrobial agents, may serve as a significant reservoir of resistant bacteria that can transmit to humans through the food supply.”

• “Several studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on antimicrobial-resistant Salmonella showed that [antibiotic resistance] in Salmonella strains was most likely due to the antimicrobial use in food animals, and that most infections caused by resistant strains are acquired from the consumption of contaminated food.”

• “Farmers and farm workers may get exposed to resistant bacteria by handling animals, feed, and manure. These exposures are of significant concern to public health, as they can transfer the resistant bacteria to family and community members, particularly through person-to-person contacts.”

• “Resistant bacteria can also spread from intensive food animal production area to outside boundaries through contact between food animals and animals in the external environment. Insects, flies, houseflies, rodents, and wild birds play an important role in this mode of transmission. They are particularly attracted to animal wastes and feed sources from where they carry the resistant bacteria to several locations outside the animal production facility.”

Naturally, such assertions didn’t please the meat industry—and the fact that they were backed up by dozens of peer-reviewed science papers no doubt only sharpened the sting. In the trade paper National Hog Farmer, a National Pork Producers Council official lashed out. Perhaps lacking factual ammunition, the official resorted to an attack on the researchers’ credentials: “We find it very disappointing that a research assistant at a university, who is not an Agricultural Research Service scientist, can develop and post such a review without it going through an agency or peer review process.”

Comment: Yet another reason to buy organic, and local foods…

And if you think agrobusiness is good for a local economy (though obviously not a concern in Cape Breton since there is almost no agriculture here any more, sadly):

“Counties with more hog sales and larger farms tend to have lower total incomes, slower income growth, fewer Main Street businesses and less retail activity. General employment levels have suffered, wages in meatpacking have declined and farm job opportunities are more difficult to find. In spite of what Big Pork boosters have said, there is little evidence that the trends in Iowa hog production have been good for Iowa’s rural economies.”

Comment: yes, this is US article and data, but most things like this are very similar in Canada.

Meanwhile, other problems in the pork belt:

…starting in about 2009, in the pits that capture manure under factory-scale hog farms, a gray, bubbly substance began appearing at the surface of the fecal soup. The problem is menacing: As manure breaks down, it emits toxic gases like hydrogen sulfide and flammable ones like methane, and trapping these noxious fumes under a layer of foam can lead to sudden, disastrous releases and even explosions. According to a 2012 report from the University of Minnesota, by September 2011, the foam had “caused about a half-dozen explosions in the upper Midwest…one explosion destroyed a barn on a farm in northern Iowa, killing 1,500 pigs and severely burning the worker involved.”

And the foam grows to a thickness of up to four feet—check out these images, from a University of Minnesota document published by the Iowa Pork Producers, showing a vile-looking substance seeping up from between the slats that form the floor of a hog barn. Those slats are designed to allow hog waste to drop down into the below-ground pits; it is alarming to see it bubbling back up in the form of a substance the consistency of beaten egg whites.

And here’s the catch: Scientists can’t explain the phenomenon.

Comment: in some other articles it seems there are explanations, and also a solution – another type of antibiotic.