Today’s news that an important class of drugs is no longer effective in treating gonorrhea is yet another sign that we’re losing the drug war. But this drug war isn’t roiling in the jungles of Columbia or outstate meth labs. The casualties in this war are all those people who are being treated for infections, and suddenly find the old standby drugs don’t work anymore. The war on modern antibiotics is taking place in all those low-slung confinement buildings that house millions of heads of livestock. The news coverage on how this nation’s number two sexually transmitted disease has evolved into a superbug seems to have missed a key point: large-scale factory livestock farming shares a big part of the blame for developing antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Industrial ag says ending the use of antibiotics as livestock growth-promotants would bring about radical changes in farming. Guess what? Industrial ag is right.
The latest class of antibiotics to be flipped the bird by gonorrhea are fluoroquinolones. That means now only one class of drugs—cephalosporins—stand in the way of making gonorrhea a true public health menace. Like many antibiotics, fluoroquinolones do double duty: they treat human infections and help bring livestock to market.
In fact, during the past 50 years antibiotics have revolutionized meat, poultry and dairy production. Large-scale total confinement livestock production is possible because of the development of pharmaceuticals that can be administered to animals living under less than optimal conditions. This isn’t just a case of treating sick animals for specific illnesses. In fact, U.S. livestock are fed more than 24 million pounds of antibiotics annually for purposes other than to treat disease, according to estimates developed by the Union of Concerned Scientists a few years ago. That’s compared to three million pounds of antibiotics that are used by humans, according to the Union’s estimates. These “subtherapeutic” dosages are being utilized to increase feed efficiency and put pounds of meat on faster.
Now, it should be noted that over-use of antibiotics in the human health care industry is also a major contributor to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When’s the last time you talked your physician into giving you an antibiotic for a really (cough, cough) bad cold? Or have you ever stopped taking an antibiotic before the bottle was empty because you already felt good, giving those bacteria a chance to build resistance? These are truly selfish acts—a medical version of the tragedy of the commons.
However, physicians, scientists, groups like the American Medical Association and, increasingly, members of the health care-consuming public are raising serious concerns that the massive amounts of low-level subtherapeutic antibiotics used in livestock farming are creating a reservoir of resistant bacteria which threaten human health. There are predictions that superbugs could return us to the dark ages of pre-antibiotic medicine, when people died of infections that today are considered pretty routine to deal with.
It’s the sheer volume of low-levels of antibiotics fed to livestock that is creating the perfect superbug soup. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria thrive in environments where just enough drugs are present to weed out the weak, but not to kill off the strong. Get exposed to enough low levels of something that’s supposed to be toxic to you, and there’s a good chance you will build a resistance to it. And when the strong ones reproduce, their offspring don’t fall far from the tree.
When a farmer treats a sick pig with an antibiotic like tetracycline, it’s at full strength for a short amount of time, leaving little room for superbugs to evolve. (Full disclosure: I have a special affinity for tetracycline—it once cured a bad case of tick bite fever I picked up while serving in the Peace Corps in Lesotho.) But when low levels of antibiotics are fed day after day, it’s party time at the Superbug Nursery.
And even when drugs are being given to factory farmed animals to treat specific ailments, problems can arise because of the managment limitations posed by large-scale confinement. For example, in 1995 the poultry industry started using fluoroquinolone drugs—yes, the same ones that are no longer effective against gonorrhea—to treat respiratory problems in poultry, which are common in the large confinement barns used by the industry. Antibiotic use in poultry is particularly problematic because if a few birds get sick, the whole flock must be treated. It’s almost impossible to separate out sick birds and treat them individually. That’s like giving every kid at Northrop Primary School a daily dose of penicillin because a few second graders came down with strep throat.
Large livestock producers, along with the feedstuffs and pharmaceutical industries, are resisting any restrictions on antibiotic use. In fact, as the Associated Press reported the other day, there’s an effort to make yet another powerful antibiotic eligible for use in livestock agriculture. Agribusiness argues that even minimal antibiotic restrictions would lead to the demise of animal farming, as we know it. “As we know it” is a key phrase. There are farmers throughout Minnesota and the rest of the Midwest who are producing livestock without daily, subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics. And yes, in most cases they are not raising those animals in the typical, factory-style confinement way. As I reported in “Antibiotics, Agriculture and Resistance,” these farmers are using deep-straw Swedish-style systems, managed rotational grazing and other innovative techniques to produce livestock in healthy environments that don’t require drugs by the bagful.
And there’s a demand for these drug-free products. Just last month representatives of Chipotle Mexican Grill, a national restaurant chain that offers pork produced without antibiotics and raised in humane conditions, testified at the Minnesota Legislature in favor of increased funding for sustainable livestock production research. Chipotle, which has 43 restaurants in Minnesota, gets most of its natural pork from Niman Ranch producers in the Midwest, including over 60 in Minnesota. Many of those producers have benefited from sustainable swine research that’s going on at places like the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, Minn. But switching to antibiotic-free production is not easy, and more support and research is needed for farmers.
“We’re really proud to offer naturally raised meats but we can’t get enough of it,” said Mike Fuller, a marketing consultant with Chipotle during his testimony “We’ve proven there is a demand for this kind of food and funding these research initiatives would make it possible for us to get more of these products locally.”
Widespread adaption of livestock production systems that aren’t reliant on drugs is possible. In Denmark, where growth-promoting antibiotics have not been given to hogs, chickens or cattle since the late 1990s, the presence of drug-resistant bacteria has dropped, and the health of the animals has not been affected, according to the Danish Veterinary Institute in Copenhagen.
The nice bonus to antibiotic-free livestock production such as what Niman Ranch’s producers practice is that it benefits the environment. Their use of deep straw systems and carefully managed pastures helps make livestock waste a valuable, biologically-active nutrient, not a waste product that eventually becomes a pollutant.
The loss of fluoroquinolone in the battle against gonorrhea should be a wake-up call. And the fact that we have farmers right here, right now, willing and able to reduce the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture should be the answer to that wake-up call. We average folks play an important role in this: don’t misuse antibiotics in your own personal healthcare, don’t buy the agribusiness line that livestock farming will crumble without the use of subtherapeutic drug dosages, and finally, buy livestock products produced in ways that don’t contribute to this crisis.
Loud & Proud or Quiet on Quinolones?
Here’s an historical (does 5 years ago qualify as historical?) aside related to fluoroquinolone drugs: In February 2002, two of the biggest names in poultry—Perdue and Tyson—announced they were dropping the use of fluoroquinolones in their barns. Since then, much of the rest of the poultry industry has started offering niche brands of chicken and turkey products that are marketed as “antibiotic-free” (keep in mind, there’s a difference between an animal that was not fed antibiotics, and one that had drugs pulled from its diet a certain number of days before slaughter).
Soon after Perdue and Tyson’s announcement in 2002, I interviewed a public relations specialist with Minnesota’s own Gold’n Plump. At that time Gold’n Plump felt there was no direct scientific evidence linking the feeding of the antibiotic to chickens and resistant bacteria in humans, and the company was not considering dropping fluroquinolones.
“Right now it’s a PR war. But it’s more important to be scientific than to do it for good PR,” the PR specialist told me at the time, adding that if his company ever does drop a drug like fluoroquinolone, it won’t try to make public relations hay out of such a change. “We’d probably make that decision quietly. We don’t see the need to be boisterous about it.”
Hmm, I guess I’m not enough of a public relations expert to know if the “Raised With No Antibiotics” claim stamped all over Gold’n Plump’s “All Natural” brand of chicken these days qualifies as “boisterous” or not.
Here’s some good news for the poultry industry: as of today, there are probably a whole heck of a lot of units of fluoroquinolone drugs available, maybe even at bargain basement prices. Just in case they ever want to go back to quietly using them again.