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Antibiotic resistance and factory farming Answered

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.


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

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.

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.

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.

Is there any way to help prevent MRSA?

How do we maintain mass production of meat then?

The same way we've always done - good animal husbandry, including good hygiene and living conditions.

The massive use of antibiotics causes perhaps a 10% increase in meat production for the farmer (just my educated guess - I doubt it's that high, actually). Does that justify destroying the best arsenal of weapons we've had for the past 80 years against bacterial infections in humans?

The alternative answer is: Why do you think we should maintain mass production of meat? Meat is a horribly inefficient food source, once you take into account how much it takes (and how much it wastes) to produce a pound of meat versus an equivalent amount of vegetarian food.

But I'm guessing that's not the answer you were looking for...

(Not spoken as a rabid vegetarian here - I like me a piece of that meat as well. I just know it's bad for the planet, and for me.)

10% means the death of a cow or not. My landlord is not a huge factory farm guy, but he raises beef cattle. He give sick cattle antibiotics. To participate in certain auctions, he must also innculate/vaccinate every cow for certain ailments. I think we could do with eating a LOT less meat in this country. More black beans for me, thank you. I'm no vegetarian, either, but I've known for a long time that a very low meat diet is better. Just having trouble following one. Anyhow, raising beef cattle really doesn't take all that much in the way of resources. A lot less work for the money than grain. If demand for meat drops and demand for grain rises, then I guarantee my landlord will stop raising cattle. As for now, it pays his bills.

Anyone that partakes of lots of "overly preprocessed" foods, is getting way to many carbohydrates...

And gets more pimples, to boot. No, I'm not a fan of most commercial bread or cake products which are super processed.

TV, or frozen "dinners" are horrible that way.

Something most people don't know, but there is a USDA limit on the number of insect parts allowed in each frozen dinner. And it isn't 0 LOL Back when I got Consumer Reports, the limit was 15 part per 12 oz dinner. Yum yum LOL well at least that ole cockroach was FULLY cooked :-)

Well, I can understand that. Mechanically separating out EVERY insect bit from grains sound darn near impossible, though I bet we could do it with image recognition technology.

Probably would not make those 99 cent to $2 tv dinners any cheaper though :-)

Shoot, we could just microwave lard with Jelly-belly flavoring and save money! : )

Something would be lost in the taste (salt, you need lots of salt too) LOL

No, no. You actually made an excellent point. It never actually occurred to me how much is wasted for the production of meat. It does take quite a lot to produce only a little. We could certainly cut down mass production of meat by that 10% (if not more) if we reserved it for delicacy.

Traditionally, meat animals ate what humans couldn't. That's why feeding pigs, goats, and chickens on scraps is like composting for meat. ;) They also do a nice job of aerating fields, spreading manure, weeding, etc if you've got land for them to roam on.

Of course, since meat is factory-farmed in the US, it's not that simple. In this case, you have to evaluate the amount of input necessary to achieve a pound of edible meat output. These inputs can be measured as some combination of water, gasoline, corn/grain, or acres of land.

In general, moving down in size improves your meat-based ecological footprint. It takes a lot more water and energy to produce a pound of beef than it does a pound of, say, goat or chicken- it's a question of efficiency of conversion. The way your meat is raised has a lot to do with how awful (or not) its ecological footprint turns out to be.

That said, we certainly don't need to eat nearly as much meat and dairy (or simple carbohydrates) as we do. It's a recent luxury to be able to do so, and thus obesity and Type-2 diabetes are killing more people than malnutrition.

We could cut consumption down to 10%! Seriously, we don't need to eat much meat at all.

Pardon my tone. I meant that sincerely, not just to be an ass.

MMMMM...chronic wasting disease...yummy!

Eh, just stay away from neural tissue.

Tell that the the people with mad-cow disease. They were told it was safe, too. Quick question-did the deer get it by eating neural tissue? Since it infects humans, wouldn't blood contact from, say, touching raw meat be an infection possibility? And which cases of CJD involved neural tissue? "Natural" is not synonymous with "safe", never has been, never will be.

Heh - I still can't give blood here in the US, even though I moved here from Belgium 17 years ago. Considering the low incidence of vCJD in Belgium despite intense surveillance, and the near absence of monitoring of "downer cows" in the US, I'd be more worried about getting a transfusion from some of the US meatlovers.

Ah well - lots of good-quality O+ going to waste here...

I have the same problem. My blood was all well and good until they started a policy of not accepting anyone's blood who'd been in Europe for more than three months since 1980. I was there from 1982-1984, but as far as I can tell, I don't have Mad Cow Disease. Whatever, their loss.

Whilst I agree that the use of antibiotics in farming is generally a bad thing, and contributes to the resistance problem, I'm not sure it is the main cause of resistance, since farmers who use antibiotics use them quite diligently.

Much more at fault are people who, when prescribed antibiotics, fail to take the full course. They assume that, when they feel OK, the bugs are all dead. Instead, they leave a small but significant population of bacteria that were tough enough to survive the antibiotic for a while.

Also at fault are people who expect doctors to give them antibiotics for every viral sniffle, and the doctors who (used to) give in to patient demands and prescribe them without need.

Evolution in action.

While that's clearly a problem, the simple quantity of animals on antibiotics dwarfs the human behavioral issue. 1) Feeding cows corn changes their stomach pH from ~7 to ~2, or the same as a human stomach. 2) This means the cattle then harbor the same set of gastroenteric bacteria as a human gut. They are also gassy, sick, and prone to infection. 3) When fed a low-level prophylactic dose of antibiotics (necessary to prevent disease and encourage rampant growth under close conditions AND with the corn-induced stomach pH change) you've got the same situation as the human antibiotic resistance problem writ large. 4) There are MANY more farm animals on antibiotics than humans. This means we've essentially got millions of little incubators churning about, specifically generating antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria perfect for our guts. Note that British regulations on antibiotic administration to livestock may differ from US regs- here they can and do use them with impunity. We only buy meat from local farms who have clear and responsible animal treatment policies, but they're not the standard.

I didn't know about the corn / pH thing, but I believe most UK cows are grass / silage fed, certainly in the spring, summer & autumn - I don't know what's in cowcake (it used to be beef waste, which is where, of course, we got CJD). I don't know what the rules about antibiotics, but they are certainly frowned upon by the general population - "organic" is getting to be a powerful marketing word. We have had numerous food scares in the UK, but only CJD has been beef-based, and that wasn't an antibiotic issue.

I didn't know about the corn / pH thing,...

Totally check out that book canida mentioned... I think what canida meant to say was that he's more of a story teller, so it's a bit drawn out (at times,on the verge of boring) - but a good read :p

Holy xxxx! This is scary information... I mentioned this to my wife--darned if she didn't already know. She's been bugging me to read the book "The Omnivore's Dilemma," which was her source. Time to go to the library....


10 years ago

Yeah, the tons of antibiotics that gets shoveled into animals on a yearly basis is rather frightening. Most of the antibiotics aren't even used for treating any diseases in the animals. Heck, they're not even used to prevent any diseases in the animals - they're just used as a growth supplement...

Another good person/blog to keep an eye on is Mike the Mad Biologist. His rants cover a wide range of topics, but said Mike also happens to be the research director for the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics.

Heh - I could have guessed it was only a matter of time before Mike the Mad Biologist would weigh in on the article by Michael Pollan that Christy was quoting from. I don't always 100% agree with Mike on everything he says, but the emergence of antibiotic resistance is his professional area of expertise...

Pigs, MRSA, and 'Superbugs'

The upshot: although the dangers of agricultural antibiotic use are very real, this specific instance (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus in pigs) is not as bad as Pollan makes it sound. "Scientific precision matters here, and Pollan isn't helping."

However, Mike also points to the recent FDA approval of Cefquinone for agricultural use:

Here's why cefquinome use in agriculture is really stupid: bacteria that evolve resistance to cefquinome, also become resistant to cefepime, a vital drug in the treatment of pneumonia and other diseases in humans, as well as most (or all) other cephalosporin and beta-lactam antibiotics. Essentially, we lose an entire class of drugs. In Europe, after cefquinome was approved, resistance to cefepime skyrocketed, reducing the effectiveness of cefepime. Rather than cefepime working almost all the time, it now is ineffective roughly 20% of the time, which means it can no longer be viewed as a 'magic bullet.'

I'm extraordinarily lucky to live in Iowa in this regard. For my whole life my parents have had a freezer and have bought a half side of beef at a time. We know the farmer who raised it - they're a 'gentleman farmer' type - raising a few cows at a time without all of the antibiotics, chemicals and unpleasant living conditions. This time they actually shared in the same cow the farmer themselves is eating. It's butchered at an independent butcher shop. You can identify each person that handled it. And I am completely certain that you could eat it raw and not get any kind of diseases. And it's much cheaper than grocery store beef.

But here's what's really important:
You don't need to know a farmer. At the butcher shop here (and almost anywhere else in America as far as I know) anyone can walk in and buy meat that way. The people who work there know where everything comes from. They can tell you what you want to know. You don't have to settle for antibiotic laden meats, and you don't necessarily have to pay more for it (like at certain 'organic' groceries). Pull out the phone book and start calling around. Create real demand for what you want if you want this to change.

On a side note I've read that the use of antibiotics is primarily based on one study done in the 50s that said antibiotics massively increase production, and that study's results haven't been duplicated since. If I remember where I read that I'll track it back down...

Grrrr... factory farms are gross! I went to a couple of them (although they were super-small scale compared to... say... Purdue) in upstate New York a few years back. The animals looked terrible, and the place was so ridiculously filthy that there couldn't not be tons of airborne bacteria/disease flying around. Anyhow.... shows how industry will once again foil humankind's plot to multiply and survive...