By Dr. Mercola
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria infect two million Americans every year, causing at least 23,000 deaths. Even more die from complications related to the infections, and the numbers are steadily growing.
It's now clear that we are facing the perfect storm to take us back to the pre-antibiotic age, when some of the most important advances in modern medicine – intensive care, organ transplants, care for premature babies, surgeries and even treatment for many common bacterial infections – will no longer be possible.
Experts have been warning about the implications of antibiotic resistance for years, but it's time to face the facts. Many strains of bacteria are becoming resistant to even our strongest antibiotics and are causing deadly infections.
The bacteria are capable of evolving much faster than we are. Secondly, drug companies have all but abandoned the development of new antibiotics because of their poor profit margins.
Antibiotic Resistance: How Did This Happen?
Antibiotic overuse and inappropriate use – such as taking antibiotics to treat viral infections -- bears a heavy responsibility for creating the antibiotic-resistant superbug crisis we are facing today.
According to Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, associate director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as much as half of all antibiotics used in clinics and hospitals "are either unneeded or patients are getting the wrong drugs to treat their infections."1
There's more to the story than this, however, as antibiotic overuse occurs not just in medicine, but also in food production. In fact, agricultural usage accounts for about 80 percent of all antibiotic use in the US,2 so it's a MAJOR source of human antibiotic consumption.
Nearly 25 million pounds of antibiotics are administered to livestock in the US every year for purposes other than treating disease, such as making the animals grow bigger faster.
In other parts of the world, such as the EU, adding antibiotics to animal feed to accelerate growth has been banned for years. The antibiotic residues in meat and dairy, as well as the resistant bacteria, are passed on to you in the foods you eat.
Eighty different antibiotics are allowed in cows' milk. According to the CDC, 22 percent of antibiotic-resistant illness in humans is in fact linked to food.3 In the words of Dr. Srinivasan:
"The more you use an antibiotic, the more you expose a bacteria to an antibiotic, the greater the likelihood that resistance to that antibiotic is going to develop. So the more antibiotics we put into people, we put into the environment, we put into livestock, the more opportunities we create for these bacteria to become resistant."
This is a much bigger issue than antibiotics simply being left behind in your meat. For instance, bacteria often share genes that make them resistant. In other words, the drug-resistant bacteria that contaminates your meat may pass on their resistant genes to other bacteria in your body, making you more likely to become sick.
Drug-resistant bacteria also accumulate in manure that is spread on fields and enters waterways, allowing the drug-resistant bacteria to spread far and wide and ultimately back up the food chain to us. You can see how easily antibiotic resistance spreads, via the food you eat and community contact, in the CDC's infographic below.
Source: CDC.gov, Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013
One-Third of the Most Dangerous Resistant Pathogens Are Found in Your Food
According to the CDC's report, there are 12 resistant pathogens that pose a "serious" threat to public health. One-third of them are found in food. The four drug-resistant pathogens in question are:
- Campylobacter, which causes an estimated 310,000 infections and 28 deaths per year
- Salmonella, responsible for another 100,000 infections and 38 deaths annually
- E. coli
Previous research suggested you have a 50/50 chance of buying meat tainted with drug-resistant bacteria when you buy meat from your local grocery store.4 But it may be even worse. Using data collected by the federal agency called NARMS (National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System), the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found antibiotic-resistant bacteria in 81 percent of ground turkey, 69 percent of pork chops, 55 percent of ground beef, and 39 percent of raw chicken parts purchased in stores in 2011. EWG nutritionist and the report's lead researcher, Dawn Undurraga, issued the following warning to the public:5
"Consumers should be very concerned that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are now common in the meat aisles of most American supermarkets... These organisms can cause foodborne illnesses and other infections. Worse, they spread antibiotic-resistance, which threatens to bring on a post-antibiotic era where important medicines critical to treating people could become ineffective."
What Happens When a Country Takes Its Livestock Off Antibiotics?
In the US, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are hotbeds for breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of the continuous feeding of low doses of antibiotics to the animals, who become living bioreactors for pathogens to survive, adapt, and eventually, thrive. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) ruled that antibiotic resistance is a major threat to public health, worldwide, and the primary cause for this man-made epidemic is the widespread misuse of antibiotics.6
Measures to curb the rampant overuse of agricultural antibiotics could have a major impact in the US, as evidenced by actions taken in other countries. For example, Denmark stopped the widespread use of antibiotics in their pork industry 14 years ago. The European Union has also banned the routine use of antibiotics in animal feed over concerns of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
After Denmark implemented the antibiotic ban, it was later confirmed the country had drastically reduced antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their animals and food. Furthermore, the Danish 'experiment' proved that removing antibiotics doesn't have to hurt the industry's bottom line. In the first 12 years of the ban, the Danish pork industry grew by 43 percent -- making it one of the top exporters of pork in the world. As reported by Consumer Reports:7
"What happens when a country takes its livestock off antibiotics? In 2000 Denmark's pork industry ceased using antibiotics to promote the growth of its animals. Instead of eviscerating the nation's pork industry, those moves contributed to a 50 percent rise in pork production, according to a 2012 article in the journal Nature.8
Frank Aarestrup, D.V.M., Ph.D., head of the EU Reference Laboratory for Antimicrobial Resistance and author of the article, attributes Denmark's success to three factors: laws banning the improper use of antibiotics, a robust system of surveillance and enforcement, and rules that prevent veterinarians from profiting from selling antibiotics to farmers. 'Farmers and their livestock can thrive without the heavy use of antibiotics,' Aarestrup wrote. 'With a little effort, I believe that other countries can and must help their farmers to do the same.'"
What's Standing in the Way of Curbing Antibiotic Use in the US?
In a word, industry. For instance, the American Pork Industry doesn't want to curb antibiotic use, as this would mean raising the cost of producing pork by an estimated $5 for every 100 pounds of pork brought to market. The pharmaceutical industry is obviously against it as well. Even though they're not keen on producing new antibiotics to bring to the market, they want to protect those that are already here – especially those incredibly lucrative varieties that are used perpetually in animal feed. Even Dr. Aarestrup, who helped Denmark cut the use of antibiotics in livestock by 60 percent, wrote about the intense industry pressures he faced:9
"Reducing Denmark's reliance on antibiotics was far from easy. My lab was visited by pharmaceutical executives who did not like what we were finding, and I would be cornered at meetings by people who disagreed with our conclusions. I have even been publicly accused of being paid to produce biased results. Despite such challenges, it has been satisfying to see that Danish farmers and their livestock can thrive without the heavy use of antibiotics. …The practice continues unabated in the United States, despite a statement from the Food and Drug Administration [FDA]… suggesting that farmers should stop voluntarily."
FDA Again Fails to Take Appropriate Action on Agricultural Antibiotics
The FDA issued its long-awaited guidance on agricultural antibiotics on December 11, 2013.10 Unfortunately, it's unlikely to have a major impact in terms of protecting your health. The agency is simply asking drug companies to voluntarily restrict the use of antibiotics that are important in human medicine by excluding growth promotion in animals as a listed use on the drug label.11 This would prevent farmers from legally using antibiotics such as tetracyclines, penicillins, and azithromycin for growth promotion purposes. But it certainly does not go far enough to protect public health. The guidance contains far too many loopholes for any meaningful protection.
For example, farmers would still be allowed to use antibiotics for therapeutic purposes, which would allow them to continue feeding their animals antibiotics for growth promotion without actually admitting that's the reason for doing so. As reported by Scientific American:12
"[T]he success of the FDA's new program depends on how many companies volunteer to change their labels over the next 90 days in alignment with the FDA cutoff period. (Companies that do change their labels will have three years to phase in the changes.) And then there are myriad questions about how this would be enforced on the farm."
In short, while giving the superficial appearance of taking warranted action to protect public health, the reality is that they're simply shills for the industry. Michael Taylor,13 FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, and former VP for public policy at Monsanto, is again responsible for caving in to industry at the expense of human lives.
Why Did FDA Ignore Risk Factors from the Very Beginning?
According to a recent report14 from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the FDA has known that using antibiotics in factory farms is harmful to human health for over a dozen years, yet it took no action to curb its use. And now, all they're doing is asking drug companies, who make massive amounts of money from these products, to voluntary restrict their use.
The report also found that 26 of the 30 drugs reviewed by the FDA did not meet safety guidelines issued in 1973, and NONE of the 30 drugs would meet today's safety guidelines... As reported by Rodale Magazine,15 the FDA is supposed to look at three factors when determining the safety of an antibiotic-based feed additive. Based on the three factors listed below, the NRDC's report16 concluded that virtually ALL feed additives containing penicillin and tetracycline antibiotics—both of which are used to treat human disease—pose a "high risk" to human health, and should not be permitted:
- The chances that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are being introduced into the food supply
- The likelihood that people would get exposed to those bacteria
- The consequences of what happens when people are exposed to those bacteria—would they still be able to get treated with human antibiotics?
Looking on the Brighter Side
The impending superbug crisis has a three-prong solution:
- Better infection prevention, with a focus on strengthening your immune system naturally
- More responsible use of antibiotics for people and animals, with a return to biodynamic farming and a complete overhaul of our food system
- Innovative new approaches to the treatment of infections from all branches of science, natural as well as allopathic
There are some promising new avenues of study that may result in fresh ways to fight superbugs. For example, Dutch scientists have discovered a way to deactivate antibiotics with a blast of ultraviolet light before bacteria have a chance to adapt, and before the antibiotics can damage your good bacteria.17
And British scientists have discovered how bacteria talk to each other through "quorum signaling" and are investigating ways of disrupting this process in order to render them incapable of causing an infection. They believe this may lead to a new line of anti-infectives that do not kill bacteria, but instead block their ability to cause disease.18 But the basic strategy that you have at your disposal right now is prevention, prevention, prevention—it's much easier to prevent an infection than to halt one already in progress.
Natural compounds with antimicrobial activity such as garlic, cinnamon, oregano extract, colloidal silver, Manuka honey, probiotics and fermented foods, echinacea, sunlight and vitamin D are all excellent options to try before resorting to drugs. Best of all, research has shown that bacteria do not tend to develop resistance to these types of treatments. The basic key to keeping your immune system healthy is making good lifestyle choices such as proper diet, stress management and exercise.
You Can Take Action to Help Save Antibiotics from Extinction
Avoiding antibiotic-resistance is but one of several good reasons to avoid meats and animal products from animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). This is in part why grass-fed pastured meat is the only type of meat I recommend. If you're regularly eating meat bought at your local grocery store, know that you're in all likelihood getting exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and a low dose of antibiotics with every meal... and this low-dose exposure is what's allowing bacteria to adapt and develop such strong resistance.
The FDA's stance toward antibiotics in livestock feed is unconscionable in light of the harm it wreaks, and its weakness makes being proactive on a personal level all the more important. Quite simply, the FDA has been, and still is, supporting the profitability of large-scale factory farming at the expense of public health.
You can help yourself and your community by using antibiotics only when absolutely necessary and by purchasing organic, antibiotic-free meats and other foods from local farmers – not CAFOs. Even though the problem of antibiotic resistance needs to be stemmed through public policy on a nationwide level, the more people who get involved on a personal level to stop unnecessary antibiotic use the better. You can help on a larger scale, too, by telling the FDA we need a mandatory ban on sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics for livestock—not weak, voluntary guidance.
FDA Deputy Commissioner and ex-Monsanto attorney Michael Taylor will leave quite a legacy behind. He's not only served Monsanto and the other pesticide producers quite well, he seems to carry the same sentiment over to the antiobiotic crisis. The FDA claims that a voluntary guideline "is the most efficient and effective way to change the use of these products in animal agriculture." It would appear that Taylor's concern for human health takes a very distant back seat to industry profits...
To make your voice heard, please sign the Organic Consumer's Association's petition, calling for a mandatory ban on sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics for livestock.