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Rise of the Superbugs: Why We Are Increasingly at Risk From Antibiotic-Resistant Diseases

The evidence is overwhelming that these new superbugs are at least partially a result of dosing farm animals with subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics added to their feed.

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Couric also reported that the exact same drugs used to treat human disease are also used on animals. Her piece also presented Denmark’s experiment with administering antibiotics only when the animals actually become sick and interviewed farmers in the US who don’t use antibiotics as a regular practice.

One poultry farmer admitted that he’d been using them so long “they didn’t work well anyway anymore.”

He also said his Pennsylvania poultry farms are more profitable than when he used antibiotics and the cost to consumers was only about 20 cents per pound higher.

Though the prevalence of these diseases may be new to many Americans, the problem of antibiotic use on farms has been well understood by the science community for a long time. Researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have done numerous studies. In one, they collected flies near 8 poultry farms and then collected samples of poultry litter (a mix of manure and bedding materials) from three large-scale, conventional poultry operations in that same area. Both the poultry litter and the flies were found to harbor antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. When you think about the flies buzzing around the casserole dishes at your next get together this information lends new meaning to the word “potluck,” doesn’t it?

In another Johns Hopkins study, we learn that simply being in a car driving behind open-crate poultry trucks may expose you to harmful, drug-resistant strains of bacteria. Who knew rural life could be so dangerous?

But wait, there’s more: Barry Estabrook (formerly of Gourmet) reports on his blog, Politics of the Plate, that a new study has found low levels of antibiotics (such as those administered on farms) actually create free radicals in the bacteria, leading to a supercharged mutation rate, resulting in a heavily populated “zoo of mutants.” Good grief.

What can you do? There is a bill in Congress right now called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. Contact your representatives and ask them to support it.

Take it further, though: stop buying what we are being sold. There are other options out there made by producers doing the right thing. Support them by looking for meat and dairy labeled antibiotic-free.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate , on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

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