However, this fact has still not generated any basic food-safety legislation. The lobbyists of the industrial farming system have blocked most initiatives to make food safer.
As a result, antibiotics can be recklessly given to healthy animals to make them grow faster -- the state of North Carolina uses more antibiotics for livestock than the entire United States uses for humans -- creating a perfect breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
According to the New York Times:
"We need more comprehensive inspections in the food system, more testing for additional strains of E. coli, and more public education (always wash your hands after touching raw meat, and don't use the same cutting board for meat and vegetables). A great place to start reforms would be by banning the feeding of antibiotics to healthy livestock."
As of July 1, the recent outbreak of E. coli in Germany, linked to contaminated sprouts, has caused at least 49 deaths and more than 4,100 illnesses in the European Union, and has once again highlighted immense problems with food safety.
The E. coli bacteria strain, O104:H4, found in the sprouts eaten by all of those who became ill was unusually deadly. A Lancet study reasoned this was due to the bacteria's ability to release Shiga toxin, which can cause hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS) leading to kidney failure and death, as well as its ability to stick to intestinal cells. But another factor involved was the fact that the E. coli was resistant to most antibiotics.
This is certainly not a problem unique to Germany. In fact, in the United States the excessive use of antibiotics in food production has lead to the creation of a new generation of hard-to-eradicate human diseases.
Why is the United States a Prime Breeding Ground for Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria?
The New York Times reported this really shocking statistic, the state of North Carolina uses more antibiotics for livestock production than the entire United States uses for humans. Chickens, cattle and hogs are fed antibiotics not on a case-specific basis to treat disease, but indiscriminately to make them grow faster -- which increases profit margins for livestock producers -- and prevent disease from teeming in filthy conditions. Industrial farmers literally add antibiotics to livestock's food and water, so they are all medicated.
What's wrong with this picture?
This excessive use of antibiotics in food production is leading to the creation of antibiotic-resistant disease. Medical overuse of antibiotics is one aspect, but the greatest, and most hidden, factor is the extreme and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in food production. It's been unclear just how many antibiotics were really used in the manufacturing of our food -- until now.
According to the first-ever report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on this subject, factory farms used a whopping 29 million pounds of antibiotics in 2009 alone.
Back in 2001, a report issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that the non-therapeutic livestock use of antibiotics accounted for 70 percent of the total antibiotic use in the United States, and when all agricultural uses were considered, they estimated the share could be as high as 84 percent! Their report revealed similar statistics, estimating that nearly 25 million pounds of antimicrobials are used in swine, poultry and cattle production for non-therapeutic purposes, whereas 3 million pounds were used in human medicine.
This suggests that 8 times more antimicrobials are used in agriculture for nontherapeutic purposes than in human medicine.
What Types of Bacteria are Resistant to Antibiotics?
Antibiotic resistance is not isolated to a few obscure bacteria. It is a very real and growing problem. Antibiotic-resistant infections actually now claim more lives each year than the "modern plague" of AIDS, and cost the American health care system some $20 billion a year! The table below shows various bacteria that are already resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics:
Acinetobacter: A bacteria found in soil and water that often causes infections in seriously ill hospital patients. Anthrax: Spread by infected animals or potentially bioterrorist weapons. Gonorrhea: A sexually transmitted disease. Group B streptococcus: A common bacteria in newborns, the elderly and adults with other illnesses. Klebsiella pneumonia: A bacteria that can lead to pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound and surgical site infections and meningitis. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA): A superbug that can be so difficult to treat, it can easily progress from a superficial skin infection to a life-threatening infection in your bones, joints, bloodstream, heart valves, lungs, or surgical wounds. Neisseria meningitides: One of the leading causes of bacterial meningitis in children and young adults. Shigella: An infectious disease caused by Shigella bacteria. Streptococcus pneumoniae: A leading cause of pneumonia, bacteremia, sinusitis, and acute otitis media (AOM). Tuberculosis (TB): Both "multi-drug resistant" and "extensively drug-resistant" forms of TB are now being seen. Typhoid fever: A life-threatening illness caused by the Salmonella Typhi bacteria. Vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE): Infection with the enteroccocci bacteria that often occurs in hospitals and is resistant to vancomycin, an antibiotic. Vancomycin-Intermediate/Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VISA/VRSA): Various strains of staph bacteria that are resistant to vancomycin. Campylobacter: A pathogen common to chicken products.
MRSA, Campylobacter, and other bacteria are being traced back to animals raised for food production, especially pigs and chickens. But it's not just meat that's the problem. Antibiotics are being transferred, via the manure used as fertilizer, into your corn, lettuce, potatoes, and other crops. Eating organically may not entirely alleviate this problem either, since organic crops, which cannot be fertilized with synthetic fertilizers, are the ones most often fertilized with manure.
As it stands, manure that contains antibiotics is still allowed under the organic label. So it all depends on where the organic farmer gets his manure. Some organic crop farmers may be getting their manure from organic cattle farms, but there's no guarantee that's taking place. The only way to find out is to ask the farmer first-hand.
Why Doesn't the United States Follow Other Countries' Leads and Stop the Madness?
Denmark stopped the widespread use of antibiotics in their pork industry more than a decade ago. After they implemented the ban on antibiotics, a Danish study confirmed that it had drastically reduced antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals and food. The European Union also banned the routine use of antibiotics in animal feed over concerns of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In the United States, however, the FDA only got around to making this recommendation last year.
The FDA has recommended that livestock farmers no longer use antibiotics routinely for growth promotion and limit their use to disease prevention only. This would be a very positive first step … but before a final guideline is made, the FDA is awaiting comments from livestock producers, drug makers and others in the industry, who are surely going to vehemently oppose such guidelines.
Most recently, a group of environmental and public health organizations, including Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), have filed a historic lawsuit against the FDA that would force the agency to respond to petitions filed in 1999 and 2005, requesting action to limit the use of antibiotics in agriculture. I expect enacting such a ban in the United States will be a long and bumpy process, which is why it's up to each and every one of us to do our part to be a force for change.
You Can Help Stop Antibiotic Overuse
You take a stand against antibiotic overuse every time you avoid using an antibiotic for a minor infection, and every time you opt to buy antibiotic-free, organically raised meat. Even better, get your food from small, local sources who have committed to raising their animals and produce without antibiotics (or antibiotic-laced manure).
If you live in the United States and want to get involved on a national level, Food Democracy Now! has created a petition against the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production. If you care about this issue, I suggest you use this petition to make your voice heard. In the same way numerous prior bills have been shot out of the water as a direct result of public outcry, your action can put the kibosh on this one as well.
You can help stop antibiotic overuse and curb the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease by telling the FDA and the White House to stand up for human health by changing their policies about the reckless use of antibiotics in animal feed.