Thursday, March 11, 2010

In the News: Antibiotics and Farm Animals

Is the use of antibiotics in farm animals contributing to resistance in humans? That depends on who you ask, but increasing evidence seems to be pointing towards a connection. The long-term, low-dose courses of antibiotics used in almost all farm animals in the United States create an ideal environment for the selection of resistant bacteria, which studies show can be passed to humans through food consumption and direct animal contact. After a ban on all antibiotic growth promoters was implemented in the European Union four years ago, U.S. regulators still waver on their policy stance - with much pressure from the food production industry to leave drug choices up to the farmers themselves.

The issue has been getting increased coverage in news outlets recently. Last month, Katie Couric reported on the link between antibiotic use in animals and human health and on the ban of antibiotic growth promoters in Denmark, the first of the EU nations to institute strict regulations on non-therapeutic drug use in animals. Couric quotes Stephen McDonnell, CEO of Applegate Farms, on the necessity of tighter restrictions on American food producers:

"We use too many antibiotics, we use too many growth promotants. The singular focus is to create cheap meat. That's not always the best thing for the health of the Americans who buy it. We think with some subtle changes - giving [farm animals] more space, feeding them a good diet, and not stressing them out by growing them too quicky - you don't even need to use antibiotics."

Response to Couric's reports was swift. H. Scott Hurd, Director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Risk Assessment and Hazard Identification in Foods of Animal Origin, picked apart her evidence with arguments against a ban on growth promoters. These opposing positions represent the back-and-forth that is behind a bill in the U.S. Congress, PAMTA, which would ban antibiotics as growth promoters. But both sides often suffer from the same lack of evidence: while antibiotic use and resistance surveillance is common in Europe, the U.S. does not monitor the amount of antibiotics fed to farm animals.

In the last week, national columnists have also chimed in on the issue. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times recounted the story of a California executive stricken with antibiotic-resistant Escherichia coli and attributed increasing resistance to antibiotic use on factory farms, as well as overprescribing by doctors. Yesterday, veterinarian Patty Khuly published an op-ed in USA Today supporting a ban and justifying potentially negative economic and animal health consequences. Like many other experts, she sees overuse of antibiotics in food animal production as part of a larger problem:

"After all, antibiotic use in animal agriculture makes sense primarily because of how we crowd and transport creatures. Remove the antibiotics, and more animals will surely get sick in the short term. But long-term, that only means the industry will be forced to reform how it houses and ships its 'widgets.'"


  1. next, i want to know about steroids given to animals. as in, how much artificial steroid does the average american consume each year that wasn't there in 1960 or thereabouts? exactly what are they feeding the poor beasts and why? how much of this substance is metabolized and how much reaches us unchanged? is this why the world is getting fat? why are we so hungry?

  2. Interesting question. Anabolic steroids are used in about 80% of American feedlot cattle, according to some estimates. They are used to promote weight gain and muscle development, but some studies have shown that these hormones impact human health when we are exposed to hormone residues on our meat, or from water that has been contaminated by manure. I don't know how this affects hunger and weight, but it has been linked to early-onset puberty in girls, and breast and prostate cancer. An article from the Sierra Club's magazine a few years ago addressed steroid use in farm animals and the general problems with cheap, mass-produced food: