Antibiotic Resistance at Factory Farms "Scares the Hell Out of" Johns Hopkins Scientists
A Meat and Dairy Industries Article from


Meg White,
August 2009

Let me just say that there's little more frightening than something that "scares the hell out of" a scientist studying our water supply and health, as Schwab does.

I also get a little nervous when they say stuff like, "We're such a dumb species, we don't deserve to survive on this planet" because of the great lengths we're going to just to kill ourselves off.

Nevertheless, I was glued to this shocking piece called simply "Farmacology" in the most recent issue of John Hopkins Magazine on the devastating effects of low level, non-therapeutic antibiotics in industrial agriculture.

It turns out they're making more than just broilers and bacon on your local factory farm; they're growing germs that are resistant to antibiotics. And don't think your commitment to organics or vegetarianism will save you: Your exposure to these superbugs could depend on actions as innocuous as driving behind a truck bound for a Tyson slaughterhouse.

Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, has been studying the phenomenon for years. She's no radical -- she doesn't even necessarily advocate organic meat production or ceasing the use of antibiotics on farm animals. She simply wants farmers to stop using antibacterial measures to boost profits.

Antibiotics are inserted into animal feed not only because they're necessary to ward of the diseases endemic in the cramped and unsanitary conditions of concentrated-animal feeding operations (CAFOs); such additives also make animals grow faster. Silbergeld explains:

These are feed additives. It's like using antibiotics as hair dye." She adds, "We have this practice of permitting the addition of almost any antibiotic that you can think of to animal feed, for no therapeutic purpose, under conditions that absolutely favor the rise of resistance. We have no controls or management of the wastes. Our food safety system is a shambles. This is a situation that is widely recognized by the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and by others, and nothing happens! It's astounding to me!

One of Silbergeld's studies looked at people in direct or tangential contact with factory farms:

41 percent of the chicken catchers had been colonized by Campylobacter jejuni, which is commensal in poultry -- it derives benefit from the chicken without harming it -- but pathogenic in people, where it's the second-leading cause of gastrointestinal disease in the United States. Among the workers at the poultry processing plant, the rate of colonization was 63 percent. Of the nine people who lived near but did not work in the industry, 100 percent had been colonized.

A different study done by Silbergeld entailed simply driving behind poultry trucks headed to slaughter. The insides of the passenger vehicles that followed the trucks, where none of these antibacterial-resistant bugs were found beforehand, were coated with such microbes afterwards.

Another study found flies transport microbes from the farms with similar expediency. Farm workers are perhaps the best vectors, bringing these superbugs home to their families and spreading them around their communities and in clinics when they come in with respiratory and neurological disorders linked to increased exposure on the farm. In fact, some studies cited in the Johns Hopkins article suggest that methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) -- the staph infection that caused near apocalyptic warnings across the nation in the last couple of years -- may come from the farm, not from the hospital as is widely believed.

Another Johns Hopkins researcher, Kellogg Schwab, says he's more than just concerned:

"This development of drug resistance scares the hell out of me. If we continue on and we lose the ability to fight these microorganisms, a robust, healthy individual has a chance of dying, where before we would be able to prevent that death."

Schwab says that if he tried, he could not build a better incubator of resistant pathogens than a factory farm. He, Silbergeld, and others assert that the level of danger has yet to be widely acknowledged. Says Schwab, "It's not appreciated until it's your mother, or your son, or you trying to fight off an infection that will not go away because the last mechanism to fight it has been usurped by someone putting it into a pig or a chicken."

Let me just say that there's little more frightening than something that "scares the hell out of" a scientist studying our water supply and health, as Schwab does.

Another frightening element to this is the difference between what the conventional wisdom has been on the ability of microbes to mutate, versus the more shocking reality. Silbergeld says that the Darwinian idea of evolution "underestimates the brilliance of microbes":

Molecular biologists now understand that within a microbial community, one microbe can acquire genetic material from another microbe, even a microbe of a much different type, then incorporate it in its own genome and thus acquire resistance to an antibiotic it has not yet even encountered. It's as if bacteria are capable of downloading resistance from a gene database.

The article does get the views of the animal farming industry, which predictably shows little concern for the potential trouble caused by antibiotic use in animals, insisting that not using antibiotics would be more harmful in terms of disease than using it. They also insist, contrary to the scientific findings outlined in the article, that the medical industry bears the most responsibility for the overuse of antibiotics.

Because the federal government does not require reporting from either the drug industry or from the industrial agriculture complex on antibiotic use, the industries' argument of there not being enough data is a somewhat valid one.

As with many other so-called innovations in the agricultural industry, the health effects of antibiotic use on CAFOs are poorly understood, which makes me even more thankful for the work of scared scientists.

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