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Bugged to death
Antibiotics in food animals: A practice that gives bugs a head start

Date published: 7/16/2010

THE BUGS are smarter than we are. And by "bugs" we mean bacteria, (although ants and roaches aren't any slouches, either). We humans spend hundreds of thousands of dollars developing antibiotics to wipe out diseases (say, salmonella) and the bugs simply mutate--without lab equipment or research scientists or even brains--and become resistant to our fancy-pants drugs.

And so we get the news stories--salmonella outbreaks, E. coli scares, and MRSA eruptions. Last year, about 70,000 Americans died from drug-resistant bacterial infections. To stem the tide, the FDA and Congress are looking to ban routine use of antibiotics in animal feedlots. Is this a slap in the face of agribusiness or a needed restriction?

Fully 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. today are used in healthy food animals. Why? The drugs promote growth and prevent widespread disease in crowded, unsanitary factory farms. After 40 years of study, however, scientists worry that this widespread use is encouraging the proliferation of resistant bacteria and the related diseases in humans.

One example: Campylobacteria found in poultry can cause intestinal upset and has been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause paralysis. Resistant strains were not common in the United States until after the use of fluoroquinolones, a type of antibiotic, gained approval for use in food animals. Recognizing the link, the FDA in 2005 banned them for veterinary use.

Like everything these days, though, the subject is controversial: Dr. Frederick Angulo of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, "There is scientific consensus that antibiotic use in food animals contributes to resistance in humans." Agribusiness vets, however, disagree. "[C]ontrary to the opponents of modern food-animal production, antibiotics are not being given excessively to pigs and cattle, and their use in livestock production is not the likely cause for an increase in antibiotic resistance in humans," writes Dr. Howard Hill, a director of the National Pork Producers Council.

So is overuse of antibiotics in food animals hurting us? To be sure, over-prescribing antibiotics in humans is a much larger cause for concern. Nevertheless, most independent research also fingers the routine application of these drugs in agribusiness.

Nontherapeutic use of antibiotics gives bugs a head start we humans can't afford. They're just too smart, these mutating micro-monsters--too smart for our own good.