Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria: Why eating farmed meat could help lead to a pandemic

Vegan MoFoI was reading an article in the New York Times today talking about a new report filed by the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) about the rising risk for antibiotic resistant infections and how devastating a problem it could be become if not addressed. The article touches briefly on several points, the main being that hospital contracted bacteria is a big problem. I pricked up my ears at the paragraph about industrial farming and its liberal use of antibiotics. I read Michael Pollan’s 2006 book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, earlier this year and he talks about the same issues.

While there are only a few sentences mentioning this in the article, the author does cite the CDC’s report. So I went digging through the actual report to find this gem, “The use of antibiotics is the single most important factor leading to antibiotic resistance around the world .” This one sentence prefaces every argument that I could possibly make. Because even though liberal use of antibiotics in humans and animals alike increases the chances of breeding bacteria immune to our antibiotics, which could potentially kill us, there does not seem to be an end in sight.

According to the CDC, 50% of all antibiotics prescribed to people are unnecessary. From my point of view, almost 100% of antibiotics given to animals destined for American plates are unnecessary. Most animals raised for their meat in the U.S. are raised on factory farms or more commonly known in the meat industry as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). Rather than having fewer cattle graze small plots of land, which is what used to be the norm, the huge demand for meat means that CAFOs pack in as many cattle as possible, feeding them on a mixture of surplus corn and liquefied fat and antibiotics. Taking away the cows’, or pigs or chickens for that matter, space and diet is a recipe for illness, and therefore the answer is universally distributed antibiotics which American consumers are now ingesting with their meal.

The CDC, notes that this large scale farming practice is done to, “prevent, control, and treat disease, and to promote the growth of food-producing animals.” The CDC report does advise against using antibiotics to promote growth in farmed animals, and later on in the report hints at phasing out their use to prevent disease as well, calling the practice “unnecessary, [it] makes everyone less safe.” However, that would mean scaling down CAFOs so that animals have healthy living conditions.

Image from: Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, Centers for Disease Control, 2013, page 14

Image from: Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, Centers for Disease Control, 2013, page 14

Reading through the CDC report was actually quite engaging. They have interactive and informative graphics like the one above and it was written so that non-scientists could comprehend it. There were more declarative sentences and less data than I would have liked but it was understandable and user friendly, which is the main thing. The report also stated that more antibiotics are sold for use with food-producing animals than they are for people. However, the real key to all this information is that widespread use of antibiotics in food-producing animals creates an enormous potential for antibiotic resistant bacteria because “these animals serve as carriers,” spreading resistance to the people who eat them. The bird flu, and swine flu of the past are perfect examples of how humans can contract resistant bacteria.

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