By: Kate Delany

Antibiotic resistance is a looming public health crisis, one that according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is “putting the achievements of modern medicine at risk.” The bacteria that causes illnesses such as foodborne disease, pneumonia, staph and tuberculosis are adapting to defeat the drugs designed to kill them. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), antibiotic resistant infections sicken 2 million people a year and kill at least 23,000. In addition to the threat of drug resistance, overuse of antibiotics results in higher medical bills, longer hospital stays and increased mortality, especially among infants, the elderly and those with chronic health concerns.

So how–and why–are people ingesting so many antibiotics? For some time now, physicians have been blamed for too readily doling out pills to insistent patients. Fault has also been assigned to parents who refuse to let their children’s viral infections run their course. The pharmaceutical industry has also been blamed for their increased advertising and the widespread availability of drugs. Patients who don’t finish their prescription or share medication have been noted as fueling the crisis.

While these parties all contribute to the growing problem, one culprit has often escaped adequate scrutiny–the meat and poultry industry, where factory farm animals routinely receive antibiotics in their water and feed. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. and half of all antibiotics worldwide are given not to humans but to pigs, cows and poultry. The animal agriculture industry uses antibiotics for three main reasons–to stimulate growth, to prevent illness and to treat it.

As Maryn McKenna notes in her book Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats, feeding antibiotics to chickens converts “a skittish, active backyard bird into a fast-growing, slow-moving, docile block of protein, as muscle-bound and top-heavy as a bodybuilder in a kids’ cartoon.” The antibiotic powder available in bulk size bags helps animals bulk up, resulting in a more commercially appealing product.

While some antibiotics treat sick animals, far more are prophylactic doses, designed to keep animals from falling sick. Overcrowded concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also known as factory farms, are ideal breeding grounds for a host of diseases. An insufficient amount of air space, an unnatural diet (such as cows eating offal made from the entrails of butchered cows) and an environment full of waste creates weakened immune systems in these animals, making them more far more susceptible to infection.

According to data cited by the National Institute of Health (NIH): “16% of all lactating dairy cows in the U.S. receive antibiotic therapy for clinical mastitis each year, but nearly all dairy cows receive intramammary infusions of prophylactic doses…Similarly, 15% of beef calves that enter feedlots receive antibiotics for the treatment of clinical respiratory disease, but therapeutic antibiotic doses are also administered to 10% of apparently healthy calves…Forty-two percent of beef calves in feedlots are fed tylosin—a veterinary macrolide drug—to prevent liver abscesses that negatively impact growth, and approximately 88% of growing swine in the U.S. receive antibiotics in their feed for disease prevention and growth promotion purposes.”

Despite this rampant prophylactic use of drugs, the diseases prevail–and adapt. For instance, according to a 2010 study by Consumer Reports, 62% of chicken sold in U.S. supermarkets is contaminated by Campylobacter, a foodborne illness that causes fever, diarrhea, nausea and abdominal pain. Agriculture scholars are currently studying the prevalence of MRSA bacterium found on Canadian and American pig farms. Industry critics allege that feeding a corn based diet to cattle increases the likelihood of a new super strain of e coli that is becoming stomach acid resistant.

The industry has repeatedly asserted that their excessive use of antibiotics does not pose any harm for humans. Though factory farms may harbor superbugs, the industry insists that proper cooking kills any bacteria present in the food. While this may be the case for Salmonella and Campylobacter bacterium, the microbes of MRSA and e coli are more difficult to kill off. Additionally, the bacterium can linger in refrigerators, on counting boards and on kitchen counters.

These superbugs can also escape the farm through other methods. Farm workers are exponentially more likely to harbor these drug resistant bacteria. Wind and water runoff also transport these bacteria beyond the farm to wildlife habitats, lakes and rivers. Once they have exited the farm, these super bacteria can exchange their genetic material with neighboring bacteria and readily multiple.

As the crisis of antibiotic resistance worsens, it is imperative that more thorough research be done on the ways that superbugs spawn on factory farms impact human and environmental health. The demand for cheap meat comes at the cost of public health. Consumers must become advocates for measures that allow antibiotics to continue to protect us in the future.