Saturday, January 10, 2009

Antibiotics and Livestock

By Diana Hsieh

In today's Food Link-O-Rama, I quoted a Scientific American article on new research showing that lettuce and other vegetables contained active antibiotics if grown in manure from livestock treated with routine antibiotics. About the story, I simply said:

At some point, I'll blog about why I avoid meat from animals treated with hormones and antibiotics. Regarding this story, I'll just say that I don't want to be ingesting antibiotics without some specific medical reason for doing so -- not even in small doses.
As I should have expected, someone asked about my views in the comments, and I wrote far more than I intended. So I thought I should post it as its own blog post. Here it is, somewhat edited:

I'm not opposed to taking antibiotics when medically necessary, nor to giving them to animals when medically necessary. By "medically necessary," I mean when you have an infection, before surgery to prevent infection, and the like.

However, that's not what happens with factory farmed livestock. For example, cows are packed very tightly into filthy feed lots and fed an inappropriate diet of corn to fatten them for slaughter. They are given antibiotics in their feed to prevent infection and promote growth. In other words, we're not taking about antibiotics given to livestock when sick, but antibiotics given routinely to them, perhaps for their whole lives. About 40% of antibiotics produced in the US goes to livestock. (For more basic details, see this Consumer's Union article.)

I don't know whether those antibiotics can be found in the milk or meat that most people buy at the grocery store; I suspect not. However, I do know that this misuse of antibiotics promotes the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. If those strains spread to humans, as apparently some have done, they can be extraordinarily dangerous. At the very least, people need to be cured by stronger antibiotics, often with hospital stays and worse side effects. If those stronger antibiotics do not work, then the infected people can die. That's not good.

Notably, the problem is not merely that farm and slaughterhouse workers might spread resistant bacteria to humans. According to this NY Times article, researchers have shown that such resistant strains of bacteria show up in the very meat you buy at the grocery store.

This new research on antibiotics residue on vegetables shows another route by which the resistant bacteria might be generated, namely anywhere the manure of livestock treated with routine antibiotics is used as fertilizer. Perhaps worse, people will ingest still-operative antibiotics by eating ordinary raw vegetables like lettuce.

Speaking generally, it's a bad idea to take antibiotics without a medical reason for doing so, particularly if you don't know what you're taking or in what doses. Even in small quantities, these antibiotics might interact badly with other drugs; a person might be allergic to them; they might reduce the effectiveness of a woman's birth control pill; they might kill the good bacteria in your gut that aid digestion.

For as long as I've known how antibiotics work, I've been been irritated by the fact that people misuse them. They don't take the whole dose; they take them intermittently; they demand them from their doctor when they just have the cold or the flu. That irritates me because it endangers human health and human lives by promoting the evolution of resistant strains of bacteria.

Once I questioned my assumptions about the ordinary methods of food production, it dawned on me that the routine use of antibiotics with livestock is probably a far greater danger than some person stopping his antibiotics after a few days. From what I've read since then, that seems to be the case.

Unlike many people, I cannot regard stricter FDA controls on antibiotic use as the answer to this problem. The FDA is a pernicious agency; it should be abolished, not given wider powers. However, I do think:
  1. that people infected with superbugs due to the overuse of antibiotics in livestock should be able to sue the farms and perhaps even the drug manufacturers, if they can prove causation

  2. that drug companies should have property rights over antibiotics for years longer, provided that they actively take action to maintain the value of the drug, such as by licensing it only for certain medically necessary uses

  3. that people ought to stop supporting the routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock by refraining from buying meat, eggs, and dairy from animals thus fed as much as possible.
Personally, I avoid meat, eggs, and dairy products from factory-farmed animals as much as I can. Such animals are raised without antibiotics or hormones. The animals are raised in far better conditions. (I like animals, so that matters to me.) And the food tastes much, much better than the standard @&#$* found in the grocery store. Although it can be somewhat more expensive, I regard it as well worth the price.

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