Avoiding an increase in antibiotic resistance among bacteria - which would lay us open to epidemics reminiscent of the Middle Ages - is high on the list of organizations promoting the safe use of antibiotics.
For example, this from two scientists from the World Health Organization: "There is growing concern that the control of infectious diseases is threatened by the upward trend in the numbers of bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics in the medical armamentarium" (see "Containment of Antibiotic Resistance" in the bibliography).
There is also growing evidence that feeding human antibiotics to farm animals causes antibiotic resistance in the animals, and that the bacteria can infect people. Writing in Science magazine in 1998, Wolfgang Witte, of the Robert Koch Institute in Germany, observed that "Fluoroquinolone use in poultry husbandry has promoted the evolution of fluoroquinolone-resistant Campylobacter jejuni, which has been detected in meat products and infected human patients." The fluoroquinolones include ciprofloxacin, a powerful, relatively new antibiotic that doctors use to kill bugs immune to older drugs.
A 1999 study related feeding quinolone antibiotics to poultry in Minnesota to human infections with antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacterium Campylobacter jejuni. The authors concluded that feeding the antibiotic to poultry -- a practice that began in 1995 -- had created a "reservoir" of antibiotic-resistant microbes that had infected people.
Don’t Forget Your Tap Water
Just when we were coming back around to the idea of drinking good old fashioned tap water, the Associated Press announced that it has found traces of dozens of pharmaceuticals in the drinking water of an estimated 41 million Americans. This news will come as no surprise to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been monitoring the presence of pharmaceuticals and personal care products, or PPCPs, in water for years, and exploring their potential ecological harm. The EPA is certainly not hiding from the issue. According to Fox News, more than 271 million pounds of pharmaceuticals are released into US waterways every year.
By turning on the hose, are we piping pharmaceuticals onto our gardens too?
A key concern is that the development of bugs that laugh at vancomycin (a last line of defense against bacteria that resist all other antibiotics) could lead to a "doomsday scenario" with bacterial epidemics reminiscent of the Dark Ages. In 1997, the European Union banned avoparcin, a drug related to vancomycin, from animal feed after studies linked it to the development of vancomycin-resistant bacteria. In 1998, the European Union banned four more antibiotics for similar reasons.
As we've said, the exact amount of antibiotic resistance due to farm practices is controversial and unknown. Cook, who says "I think it's a real issue," adds that "overwhelmingly there have not been many good studies on the issue."
Some experts are less equivocal. For example, Timothy Paustian, faculty associate, department of bacteriology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, says "we should not be wasting the precious resources of antibiotics on getting our cattle fat faster. It's a stupid idea and will always be a stupid idea. These are life-saving drugs we use to fight off infection, and to be throwing them at cattle that are not going to die anyway is stupid." A 1994 workshop sponsored by the World Health Organization reiterated a 1969 report by an expert committee from the United Kingdom. That group, the Swann Committee, argued that to avoid antibiotic resistance, animals should not receive human antibiotics.
Antibiotic Use in Agriculture - FACTS
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) estimates that 70% of all antibiotics used in the United States – more than 24 million pounds per year – are routinely put in the food and water of healthy livestock. More than half of these drugs are identical or nearly identical to the antibiotics doctors rely upon to treat human illnesses. They are given to animals to make them grow faster on less feed and compensate for the crowded, unhygienic conditions typically found on today’s industrialized livestock “farms.”
Of the over 24 million pounds of antibiotics used per year for subtherapeutic uses in agriculture, approximately 10.3 million pounds are used for hogs, 10.5 million pounds are given to poultry, and 3.7 million pounds are fed to cattle.
Antibiotics are used in 90% of starter feeds, 75% of grower feeds, and more than half of finishing feeds for pigs in the U.S.
The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that nearly 5 million pounds of two tetracycline antibiotics are given to healthy swine each year in the U.S. The volume of these two medicines given to healthy pigs alone, according to UCS estimates, is sixty percent greater than the volume of all antibiotics given to sick humans.
Agricultural use, much of it for growth promotion, accounts for 40 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States.
Consequences of the Agricultural Use of Antibiotics
The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 70% of all food-borne illnesses in the United States can be traced to meat.
According to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), 5000 deaths and 76 million cases of food-borne illness occur annually.
Overuse of antibiotics in animals is causing more strains of drug-resistant bacteria, which is affecting the treatment of various life-threatening diseases in humans. The Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences has estimated that the annual cost of treating antibiotic-resistant infections in the United States is $30 billion.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that there are two to four million Campylobacter infections per year, resulting in as many as 250 deaths each year in the United States. Furthermore, about one in a thousand Campylobacter infections leads to Guillan-Barre syndrome, a disease that can cause paralysis. There is evidence that Campylobacter is becoming resistant to fluoroquinolones due to their use in poultry which the FDA approved for poultry use only a few years ago.
Every year, approximately 40,000 cases of Salmonella are reported in the United States. Salmonella is also showing high rates of antibiotic resistance.
Each year in the United States an estimated 73,000 people suffer from E. coli O157:H7 infections. Antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli O157:H7 in humans are correlated with antibiotic use in cattle.
Subtherapeutic Use vs. Therapeutic Use of Antibiotics
The subtherapeutic use of antibiotics as growth promoters (low level doses of antibiotics – less than 50 milligrams per ton of animal) can enhance the productive efficiency of animals. This type of use has also been shown to:
Increase the daily body weight gain;
Improve the food-to-weight gain ratio;
Increase the voluntary intake of food;
Decrease both illness and morbidity.
The therapeutic use of antibiotics is solely to treat the bacterial infections an animal or group of animals may have. Doses are typically larger and are administered for a specific portion of time.
Many popular fast food chains have issued statements that they will not purchase meat from suppliers who engage in the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics. Here are a few of the letters:
“KFC does not purchase poultry treated nontherapeutically with medically important antibiotics.”
‘We’ve listened to the concerns, studied the issue, and the bottom line was we thought it was the right thing to do to discontinue the use of [fluoroquinolone antibiotics] in poultry,’ said Walt Riker, spokesman for Oak Brook-based McDonald’s.
We feel this is an important issue and will not knowingly buy chicken that has been treated with fluoroquinolones… Subway Restaurants has received statements from its chicken vendors who verify that they are not using fluoroquinolones antibiotics, nor are they using medically important antibiotics in healthy animals. Thank you for contacting us and letting us communicate our position. Good luck in your work to reduce antibiotic use!
“McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Popeye’s are now refusing to buy chicken that has been treated with [fluoroquinolones].”