Antibiotic resistance and factory farming

Want to know where the latest MRSA strains are coming from?
Not the hospitals- it's factory farms. I know the basics of antibiotic use in factory farming, but seeing the statistics is still appalling. It makes me particularly happy to have scored 55lbs of venison from my uncle this weekend.

The bit on testing reminds me of the bit about Mad Cow- US farmers who want to test 100% of their livestock aren't allowed to basically because 1) it would make the untested animals look bad, and 2) they might find something. One BSE-infected cow (or at least proof of such) could shut down US beef exports entirely. Anyway, back to MRSA:

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that at least 70 percent of the antibiotics used in America are fed to animals living on factory farms.Raising vast numbers of pigs or chickens or cattle in close and filthy confinement simply would not be possible without the routine feeding of antibiotics to keep the animals from dying of infectious diseases. That the antibiotics speed up the animals' growth also commends their use to industrial agriculture, but the crucial fact is that without these pharmaceuticals, meat production practiced on the scale and with the intensity we practice it could not be sustained for months, let alone decades.

Public-health experts have been warning us for years that this situation is a public-health disaster waiting to happen. Sooner or later, the profligate use of these antibiotics -- in many cases the very same ones we depend on when we're sick -- would lead to the evolution of bacteria that could shake them off like a spring shower. It appears that "sooner or later" may be now. Recent studies in Europe and Canada found that confinement pig operations have become reservoirs of MRSA. A European study found that 60 percent of pig farms that routinely used antibiotics had MRSA-positive pigs (compared with 5 percent of farms that did not feed pigs antibiotics). This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study showing that a strain of "œMRSA from an animal reservoir has recently entered the human population and is now responsible for [more than] 20 percent of all MRSA in the Netherlands." Is this strictly a European problem? Evidently not. According to a study in Veterinary Microbiology, MRSA was found on 45 percent of the 20 pig farms sampled in Ontario, and in 20 percent of the pig farmers. (People can harbor the bacteria without being infected by it.) Thanks to Nafta, pigs move freely between Canada and the United States. So MRSA may be present on American pig farms; we just haven't looked yet.

I love Michael Pollan's work.
If you haven't read The Omnivore's Dilemma you should. Many of his books started as pieces for the NYTimes magazine: here's a list of books and articles, with links. He's much more of a storyteller than a straight-up reporter, and despite the often dire subject matter his stories are simply fun to read. He's also a journalism prof at UCBerkeley right around the corner from Instructables.

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trebuchet039 years ago
Interestingly, I just learned of someone with mrsa (it's a friend of a friend... :p). I also just found out that my little sister (9) is required to bring in a bottle of hand sanitizer into school o.0 I've always been against using these products - the antibiotic ones have obvious problems with resistant strain breeding and all of them strip skin flora. Even alcohol based ones - all you're doing is killing germs AND removing the antimicrobial properties of your skin :/ Soap and water - no worse/no better according to the CDC. Anger Schumanger
Austringer9 years ago
Something to remember when you read stuff like this, if everyone took antibiotic X at a low level every day then yeah, pretty much every bacterium you met would resist X. That does not confer a resistance to antibiotic Y.

I think this is bad for a number of reasons, but it's not what's giving us the TB strains that are resistant to the high end antibiotics.
Actually, it's not just antibiotic X versus Y. It's antibiotic X being used in cattle, and antibiotic X' used as a last-ditch defense against a fatal disease in humans.

Antibiotics come in "families" of related substances which tend to have very similar modes of actions. This is partly due to the way Big Pharma does business: developing a really *new* antibiotic is really expensive - just like any other type of drug development. A much more profitable approach is to take an existing drug on which the patent protection is running out, and making a slight variation so the patent clock on this "new" drug starts running again.

Problem is that when bacteria develop resistance to one member of that family of antibiotics, they often become resistant to the other antibiotics as well.

So yes, resistance against a cattle antibiotics can have *serious* consequences for resistance against closely related human antibiotics!
Families are more complex than that, but yes, if a bug is resistant to antibiotic A, it's more likely to be resistant to antibiotic B where A and B are similar. It's bacteria's ability to trade resistances around via plasmids that makes me wonder why this is an effective farming practice at all. Classes are not a money saving technique for big Pharma. (Trust me, I'll be in the Citadel o' Big Pharma working on a development report in about an hour and a half. Yay CHO cells.) The most expensive part of drug development is clinical testing and you can pretty much count on a new round of clinicals with every new chemical entity no matter how small the change. When minor tinkering on a molecule comes in to play is when your company has been caught with their pants down and doesn't have anything to compete with the next big thing that Pherk or Mizer is coming out with. You find a chink in their patent estate and stick your own patent in there. (On a related note, if you ever find yourself on your way to a meeting where a IP person is going to explain their strategy it's a good idea to remember something you have to do in the lab. Just saying.) The usual patent extension plan is to reformulate to make blahblah Xtended Release or some such. Ambien is a good example of this. That still doesn't stop your original compound from going off patent, so you will still be competing against your old formulation.
canida (author)  Austringer9 years ago
The important part: there are few if any regulations about reserving antibiotics for human use. (I'll see if I can find a reference.) Having been involved in the Big Pharma corporate decision-making apparatus before, I can agree it's NOT fun, and every decision made costs insane $$$. Not a good thing when you see every antibiotic in sight being poured at low-dose into millions of livestock.
canida (author)  canida9 years ago
Here you go: from the union of concerned scientists we learn that the FDA has a framework proposal, and "plans to extend authority" to deal with new antibiotics. (from 2005)

Apparently the EU did the sensible thing over a year ago:
Europe is far ahead of the United States in the responsible use of antibiotics. On January 1, 2006, the European Union banned the feeding of all antibiotics and related drugs to livestock for growth promotion purposes. The sweeping new policy follows up a 1998 ban on the feeding of antibiotics that are valuable in human medicine to livestock for growth promotion. Now, no antibiotics can be used in European livestock for growth promotion purposes.
I spoke with a guy at work (a statistician who has a bunch of animal experience in the past) about this. What he said is that cattle get almost all their protein from bacteria, so the idea of antibiotics in the feed is that it preferentially kills off the methane producers.
This is actually a good point. So many times we want to find the simple solution: the one thing that cures all ills, the health bullet, the single act that causes all the problems, that way it is easy to fix. Complexity creates work and difficulties few like to get involved in. But we makers are not afraid of complexity....are we? I thrive on the complex (which is why I like quantums and plasma physics so much). But the simplest virus, not even a complete living thing, is a complex organism/mechanism and we have yet to unlock the methodologies behind reducing the effect they have on us and those around us.
Sunbanks9 years ago
Is there any way to help prevent MRSA?
mikesty9 years ago
How do we maintain mass production of meat then?
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