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Do Antibiotics in Animal Feed Pose a Serious Risk to Human Health?


Story at-a-glance -

  • In the US, animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are also continuously given low-dose antibiotics in their feed because it makes the animals get bigger faster
  • In other parts of the world, such as the European Union, the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in animal feed has been banned for years
  • Routine antibiotic use in animal food production is likely worsening the epidemic of antibiotic-resistant disease
  • A recent study showed industrial pig workers were found to be carrying pig MRSA, a type of antibiotic-resistant bacteria -- and that farmers at pig farms that use antibiotics are more likely to contract MRSA from the pigs than workers at antibiotic-free farms

By Dr. Mercola

In countries such as Denmark, antibiotics are used only sparingly on farms, to treat animals that are sick – a novel concept in the US, where antibiotics are used to prevent disease in healthy animals (the farmers simply ‘assume’ the animals are going to get sick otherwise, given their deplorable living conditions).

In the US, animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are also continuously given low-dose antibiotics in their feed because it makes the animals get bigger, faster.

In other parts of the world, such as the European Union, the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in animal feed has been banned for years, yet in the US this is still a topic of debate, with industry supporters trying to downplay the inevitable fact that this irresponsible use of antibiotics is most likely posing a serious risk to human health and the environment.

Debate Rages on Over Agricultural Antibiotics Use

Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ),1 David Wallinga, MD, Senior Advisor in Science, Food and Health with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy argues that the routine addition of antibiotics to animal feed is not a necessary component for animal feed and is contributing to a coming ‘catastrophe’ of antibiotic resistance.

“Enforceable measures to reduce this overuse must be core to any effort to avert the coming catastrophe. Because meat production is global in nature, these measures must be implemented nationally and supranationally,” Wallinga wrote.

He explained that, “based on a growing body of evidence, almost every European and North American public health authority agrees that routine antibiotic use in animal food production likely worsens the epidemic of resistance… Less certain is the political will to act upon that information.2 Wallinga continued:3

“You cannot dispute the warning of England’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies, that antibiotic resistance is one of modern health’s greatest threats. Also beyond dispute is her analysis of its causes—the lack of new drugs combined with massive overuse of existing antibiotics.”

In contrast, David Burch -- who develops antibiotics for use in animal feed -- wrote in BMJ that drugs used in agriculture are not those causing problems with resistance in humans, a stance that ignores the big picture. As veterinarian Gail Hansen told NPR:4

If you just look at — does this antibiotic, given to this animal, make this person sick, so we can't treat them with that same antibiotic — that's such a very narrow piece of this whole interconnected puzzle.”

Indeed, and this is a much bigger issue, even, 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.

Are Antibiotics in Agriculture Feed Contributing to the Spread of MRSA?

Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) infections are on the rise, and have become increasingly deadly as well because it has become resistant to the broad-spectrum antibiotics commonly used to treat it, such as methicillin, oxacillin, penicillin and amoxicillin.

This "super bug" is constantly adapting, and while it was first confined to hospital settings (or those who had recently spent time in a hospital or other health care setting), it's now becoming increasingly common in people who have picked it up in schools, locker rooms, gyms or other community settings.

A third variety of MRSA has also evolved among livestock animals, and there is increasing concern that this strain could begin to infect humans all over the globe.

According to Burch, the use of antibiotics in animal feed is not associated with an increase in MRSA, but it’s unclear how this assumption can be made since MRSA was first discovered in pigs and pig-farm workers in the Netherlands in 2004. Since then, this livestock MRSA strain has spread across Europe, Canada and the United States, causing both mild and life-threatening infections.  

Earlier this year, research was also published showing that CAFO workers were found to be carrying pig MRSA, and that farmers at pig farms that use antibiotics are more likely to contract MRSA from the pigs than workers at antibiotic-free farms. As written in PLOS One:5

Despite similar S. aureus and MRSA prevalence among ILO [industrial livestock operation] and AFLO [antibiotic-free livestock operation]-exposed individuals, livestock-associated MRSA and MDRSA (tetracycline-resistant, CC398, scn-negative) were only present among ILO-exposed individuals.

These findings support growing concern about antibiotics use and confinement in livestock production, raising questions about the potential for occupational exposure to an opportunistic and drug-resistant pathogen, which in other settings including hospitals and the community is of broad public health importance.”

80 Percent of US Antibiotics Use Is for Agricultural Purposes

The US uses nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics annually in food production. Livestock antibiotic use accounts for 80 percent of the total antibiotics sold in the US. Compare this to the 6 million pounds of antibiotics that are used for every man, woman and child in the US combined. CAFOs, in particular, are hotbeds for breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of the continuous feeding of low doses of antibiotics to the animals, which allows 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

Unfortunately, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has continually fallen short in this regard. Instead of enforcing stricter regulations, the agency has simply asked food producers to voluntarily limit their use of certain antibiotics. In fact, on December 22, 2011, the agency quietly posted a notice in the Federal Register7 that it was effectively reneging on its plan to reduce the use of antibiotics in agricultural animal feed – a plan it has been touting since 1977!

Reductions in Agricultural Antibiotics Proven to Reduce Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

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. But 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...

Help Change the System by Boycotting CAFO Meats and Signing This Petition

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.

If you live in the US and want to get involved on a national level, Food Democracy Now! has created a petition against the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production.8 If you care about this issue, I suggest you use this petition to make your voice heard.