Antibiotic Resistance Threat and CAFOs

When we think of scrapes, tooth abscesses, urinary tract infections, diarrhea or even botox and liposuctions , we don’t automatically worry about the risk of death because medical professionals rely on antibiotics to rid the body of infections. “Right now, if you want to be a sharp-looking hipster and get a tattoo, you’re not putting your life on the line,” said the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s (CDC) Dr. Michael Bell to Maryn McKenna of FERNnews. But that may soon change as antibiotics are rapidly losing their effectiveness.

In a first of its kind report released this past September, CDC calculated that each year in the United States, “at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.”

Antibiotic resistance develops when pathogens survive application of antibiotic agents and go on to reproduce resistant strains, at times spreading the resistance to other pathogens. Over-prescribing drugs in human population, common use of antibiotics in household products such as soaps, and, more significantly, unnecessary use of antibiotics on food animals are the leading causes for the declining effectiveness of these miracle drugs.

What’s most alarming is how little has been done in the United States to stop the resistance. While some antibiotics are used in human populations, a whopping 80 percent of antibiotics sold by volume in the United States are used in meat and poultry production as per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) statistics. According to Pew Charitable Trust, about 70 percent of such antibiotics are used on healthy animals and most are used in animal feed without supervision of a veterinarian. Even those antibiotics not used or used less frequently for human disease treatment (e.g., ionophores, tetracyclenes, respectively) may be promoting antibiotic resistance when overused in animal farming according to an article by Dr. Robert Lawrence of John Hopkins’ Center for Living Future (CFL).

Antibiotics are administered to animals in small daily doses primarily to promote growth and improve “food efficiency” (when nutrient absorption is improved with the application of certain antibiotics animals need less food to gain weight), and to prevent diseases.  With many food animals raised in deplorable dirty conditions, often with tens of thousands crammed in pens at a single facility, disease control becomes a major issue and animals are drugged further as illnesses spread quickly in confined quarters.

Furthermore, as a recent report by CFL highlighted, the overuse of antibiotics in animals goes beyond the direct administration of drugs. Compounding this is the practice of feeding animal byproducts to animals. Feather meal, for example, “a poultry byproduct used as a feed additive in poultry, swine, ruminant, and fish feed, has been found to be a source of numerous antimicrobial (and other pharmaceutical) residues.”

Such wide unmonitored and unjustified use of medically important antibiotics is outright dangerous.  Some in the industry fight back stating that not all of these drugs have dual application for human treatments and that FDA put a voluntary guidance to restrict subtherapeutic antibiotic use.  However, FDA’s voluntary guidelines have been broadly criticized as toothless.  Even the FDA doubts their efficacy as they lack specificity, monitoring, and rely entirely on drug companies and farmers finding it in their best interests to cooperate.

While reducing over-prescription of antibiotics in hospitals and doctor’s offices is important, the focus of combating antibiotic resistance needs to be firmly on the methods of animal production. “Practices such as confining animals in spaces too small to allow for natural behaviors, altering animals without pain relief, and providing animal feeds that promote growth at the expense of animal health have become routine,” noted the CLF report.  This model of cramming large numbers of animals in small spaces — the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFOs) model — is responsible for not only the looming antibiotics crisis, but for maltreatment of animals.  It is also detrimental to people who work at CAFOs, as well as to consumers and our environment.

Even if horrific images and stories about CAFOs do not tug at your heart-strings, and you close your eyes at the externalized costs of CAFOs and believe that veganism is something reserved for denizens of Los Angeles, New York and Portland, it is no longer possible to ignore how what happens out of sight in CAFOs impacts human health.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria easily migrate from CAFOs into the air, water, and soils surrounding these sites, explains the CFL report. The transporting agents could be anything from meat transportation trucks, wild animals, and the use of fertilizer or water containing animal feces and drug-resistant bacteria on food crops. Humans exposure to drug resistant bacteria comes from multiple sources, including direct contact with animals at CAFOs, contact with soil, air, or water contaminated with animal waste, and consumption or handling of contaminated food.

If you are still not concerned, give this a thought.  The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention’s's Director, Dr. Tom Frieden, recently spoke of a “nightmare bacteria” — CRE, carbapenem — resistant enterobacteriaceae most common in hospital and in-patient medical facilities. CREs, Dr. Frieden said, pose a “triple threat” as they are resistant to all or nearly all antibiotics, even some last-resort drugs, have high mortality rates, and can spread their resistance to other bacteria.