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Factory Farms Are Accelerating an Antibiotics Nightmare

Science only gets clearer: Factory farms are accelerating an antibiotics nightmare. Political ties help it happen.

Photo Credit: Oleg


Every September, the Animal Health Institute, the trade group of the animal pharmaceutical industry, hosts a party on Capitol Hill called Celebrity Pet Night. The AHI describes its signature social event as a night for “members of Congress and their staff — as well as friends of the animal health community — to gather to celebrate America’s pets.” Held in the ornate Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building, the party receives high marks from D.C. society columnists for its classy setting, loaded double bar and zoological star power. Recent guests of honor include the cat Lord Tubbington from “Glee” and the French bulldog from the Robert Downey Jr. buddy-flick bomb “Due Date.”

As the AHI tells it, these animal celebrities “bring awareness to the connection between animal health and human health.” In this way the evening functions as an extension of AHI’s public relations campaign in defense of the factory farm system and the drugs it requires to function. Most people have never heard of that campaign, which is named “Healthy People, Healthy Animals, Healthy Planet.” But it’s well known in the worlds of Big Ag, Big Pharma, and PR. In 2009, not long after Celebrity Pet Night featured Sprinkles the cat from “The Office,” the League of American Communications Professionals awarded AHI’s campaign its Magellan Award for “best community relations campaign under $1 billion.”

Among independent experts who study the links between animal and human health, the AHI campaign doesn’t evoke Magellan so much as Orwell.

There is a near consensus among public health experts that the bulk antibiotics produced by AHI’s member companies are accelerating the approach of a post-antibiotics nightmare scenario, in which superbugs routinely emerge from our farms and wreak havoc on a human population living among the ruins of modern medicine. The bloc of skeptics who view AHI’s mission with mounting anxiety includes Pet Night party poopers like the World Health Organization and the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Not long ago these authorities joined the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics in pressing their concerns on Congress  in the form of a letter. “The evidence is so strong of a link between misuse of antibiotics in food animals and human antibiotic resistance,” it stated, “that FDA and Congress should be acting much more boldly and urgently to protect these vital drugs for human illness. Overuse and misuse of important antibiotics in food animals must end.”

Even before getting to the relationship between animal antibiotics and human health, the very need for bulk drugs in factory farms points to the inherent unhealthiness of penning industrial numbers of pigs, cows and chickens in filthy, high-density and stressful conditions. “If your production system makes animals sick in a predictable manner, then that system is broken,” says Lance Price, an epidemiologist at George Washington University who studies the spread of foodborne bacteria. Price is at the forefront of researchers whose work is illuminating how Big Ag’s answer to its own brokenness — sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics mixed in with daily feed — is fueling the spread of treatment-resistant bacteria through meat and produce tainted by bug-infused feces and fertilizer. Superbugs can also leave farms through the soil, air and water, threatening everybody, irrespective of their diet.

In recent years, a series of pathogenic outbreaks has generated loudening public chatter about agricultural antibiotics. The problem boils down to simple evolution: we are assisting in the mutation of bacterial defenses that make them resistant to our antibiotics.

“Animals are crowded together in very dirty conditions and fed low dose antibiotics that eliminate susceptible bugs in the environment, but allow those that have developed resistance through spontaneous mutation to thrive,” says Robert Lawrence, a professor of environmental health science at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “Before you know it, you have situations like Foster Farms.”