Factory farms may be breeding drug-resistant bacteria
Overuse of antibiotics on animals is leading to fears that factory farms are creating drug-resistant pathogens, like the staph infection, MRSA.
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Federal agencies aren’t doing enough to keep an eye on the use of antibiotics on farms, according to a new report by The Government Accountability Office. By one estimate, the meat industry uses 29 million pounds of antibiotics a year, 80 percent of all antibiotics in the US. The GAO found that government agencies do such a poor job of oversight that officials can’t tell to what extent all those antibiotics are leading to the development of drug-resistant pathogens.
One such drug-resistant pathogen is MRSA, which now kills more Americans each year than AIDS. Peer-reviewed research has found that the over-use of antibiotics on farms helps create antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Factory farms use a small number of antibiotics to treat sick animals, but a much larger proportion to help animals gain weight faster. It’s not clear why antibiotics lead to faster weight gain in animals, but research has shown that they do.
The government tries to regulate how much antibiotic can get into the meat people consume, but the real problems are much deeper than that, according to Boston University School of Law associate professor Kevin Outterson.
"If we give so many antibiotics to animals," Outterson says, "the farmers and the people who deal with them, themselves may develop resistance." He cites recent studies that have "found strong evidence that there's transmission of antibiotic of resistance from the Chickens, due to the over use of the antibiotics, to humans."
A recent USDA review, that was later removed from the agency’s website, found that “use and misuse of antimicrobial drugs in food animal production and human medicine is the main factor accelerating antimicrobial resistance.”
Outterson thinks he knows why the report was removed: "The USDA, part of their mission is to grow food and to help farmers. And the farm industry and the meat industry was not happy with this report."
If individual farmers were forced to stop using so many antibiotics, their prices would go up, and they would likely go out of business. Outterson says the only way to do it is to have industry wide bans and regulations. He also thinks that insurance companies should start paying drug companies for more efficient use (rather than overuse) of antibiotics.
"This is an ecological problem," according to Outterson. We need to "improve water treatment, we need to do a better job on the farm animal side, we need to eliminate the overuse of antibiotics just in our own normal lives, you know, getting antibiotics when it's just for a virus."
That's a difficult idea, especially for parents. "You can buy toys with antibiotics on them now as if it's going to be better for your son or daughter," Outterson points out. "There's really good evidence that little children do better later in life if they play in the dirt and they eat a little of it, because it exposes them to the normal bacteria in their world, and later in life these kids have better immune systems and fewer problems with asthma and allergies."
"Surrounding your child with antibiotic laced toys might be a terrible idea," Outterson say. And for now, the government isn't doing enough to stop it.
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