For decades the meat industry has denied ant problem with its reliance on routine, everyday antibiotic use for the nations chickens, cows and pigs. Antibiotic use on livestock farms has surged in recent years- from 20 million pounds annually in 2003 to 30 million pounds in 2011. Over the same period, the entire human population has consumed 8 million pounds per year. Which means that livestock farms now suck in 80% of the antibiotics consumed in the U.S. Meanwhile the industry routinely churns out meat containing an array of antibiotic resistant pathogens.
The meat industry does not seem to take any of this seriously. The websites of the major industry trade groups, the American Meat Institute, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Producers Council, all insist current antibiotic practices are safe. The main reason they can claim this with a straight face is that while scientists have long suspected that drug resistant pathogens can jump from antibiotic treated animals to humans, its been notoriously difficult to prove. The obstacle is ethics, you wouldn’t want to extract, antibiotic resistant salmonella from a turkey and inject it into a person just to see what happens. The risk of what the Center for Disease Control and Prevention politely calls treat and failure, death, would be to great. But this reason is fraying quickly. The latest gene sequence study from Denmark that documents 2 cases of MRSA, a deadly antibiotic resistant staph infection, jumping from farm animals to people.
After analyzing the mutations of the MRSA strains in the women and animals, the researchers concluded that it had been circulating among the livestock before jumping to the people. This study comes on the heels of a 2012 paper by a consortium of U.S. and European researchers. It used gene sequencing to show that another common strainer of MTSA originated in humans as a common staph infection, jumped to livestock, where it evolved resistance to the common antibiotics tetracycline and methicillin and then jumped back to humans. If course you can also contract antibiotic resistant pathogens through contanct with raw meat. For example, more than 109 people did when the agribusiness giant Cargill sent out 10s of millions of pounds of ground turkey tainted with antibiotic resistant salmonella in 2011.
The studies shine a hard light on another key industry claim. The public needn’t worry about antibiotic use on farms because the FDA has extensive guidelines about how antibiotics must be used to ensure the safety for both humans and animals. It is true the FDA has limited the use of a few specific antibiotics on farms. But the GDA was restricting antibiotics that weren’t used anymore.
In fact the FDA offers only voluntary guidelines on judicious use. In fact antibiotic use on feedlots is a free for all. The FDA operates with very little information about the gusher of antibiotics entering factory farms is being used. Both the animal pharmaceutical industry and the livestock industry treat most data on antibiotic use as a tightly held secret. How much of the 30 million pounds of antibiotics now used on factory farms goes to sick animals and how much goes to making them grow faster? None of this is public information.
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