In a keynote address last year, the Director-General of the World Health Organization warned that we may be facing a future in which many of our miracle drugs no longer work. “A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it,” she said. “Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill.”
The Director-General’s prescription to avoid this catastrophe included a global call to “Restrict the use of antibiotics in food production to therapeutic purposes.” In other words, only use antibiotics in agriculture to treat sick animals. In the United States, meat producers feed literally millions of pounds of antibiotics to farm animals who aren’t sick just to promote growth or prevent disease in the often cramped, stressful, unhygienic conditions of industrial animal agriculture. The FDA estimates that 80% of the antimicrobial drugs sold in the U.S. every year now go to the meat industry.
The discoverer of penicillin warned us back in the ’40s that misuse could lead to resistance, but the meat industry didn’t listen and started feeding it to chickens by the ton. The Food and Drug Administration finally wised up to the threat in 1977 and proposed stopping the feeding of penicillin and tetracycline to farm animals.
That was 37 years ago. Since then, the combined political power of the factory farming and pharmaceutical industries has effectively thwarted any legislative or regulatory action. This stranglehold shows no sign of breaking. We realized this reckless practice was a public health threat decades ago, and yet what’s been done about it?
“Present [farm animal] production is concentrated in high-volume, crowded, stressful environments, made possible in part by the routine use of antibacterial [drugs] in [the] feed,” the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment wrote in 1979. “Thus the current dependency on low-level use of antibiotics to increase or maintain production, while of immediate benefit, also could be the Achilles’ heel of present production methods.”
Industrial operations use antibiotics as a crutch to compensate for the squalid conditions that now characterize much of modern agribusiness. The unnatural crowding of animals and their waste creates such a strain on the animals’ immune systems that normal body processes like growth may be impaired. That’s why a constant influx of antibiotics is thought to accelerate weight gain by reducing this infectious load. The problem is that “Each animal feeding on an antibiotic becomes a ‘factory’ for the production and subsequent dispersion of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” offering a whole new meaning to the term “factory farm” (see my 3-min video Past the Age of Miracles: Facing a Post-Antibiotic Age for details).
What else do they feed farm animals? Check out:
This issue, perhaps more than any other, lays to bare the power of moneyed interests to undermine public health. Look at the long list of endorsers of legislation to reform this practice. Sadly, though, the sway of nearly every single medical organization in the United States is no match for the combined might of Big Ag and Big Pharma.
For more on this issue, see:
- Meat Mythcrushers
- Drug Residues in Meat
- Toxic Megacolon Superbug
- Lowering Dietary Antibiotic Intake
- More Antibiotics In White Meat or Dark Meat?
- Chicken Dioxins, Viruses, or Antibiotics?
- MRSA in U.S. Retail Meat
- U.S. Meat Supply Flying at Half Staph
-Michael Greger, M.D.
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Image credit: Brett Aruther Donar / Flickr