Food

How Factory Farming Is Giving Rise to Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs

In addition to causing immense animal suffering, factory farms are spawning dangerous superbugs that current antibiotics are powerless against.

Austria, pig farming
Photo Credit: fritz16/Shutterstock

America is facing a real crisis in regard to antibiotics resistant infections, and factory farming is one of the main reasons.

In May, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research reported the first U.S. case of Colistin-resistant infection, involving a patient in Pennsylvania. Also that month, researchers at USDA and Health and Human Services reported finding Colistin-resistant E. coli in a pig intestinal sample. Because Colistin is a last resort drug for treating superbug (multi-drug-resistant) infections, these discoveries signal we are that much closer to what has been referred to as a post-antibiotic era, where people will die from once-treatable infections.

Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Washington Post that the finding “basically shows us that the end of the road isn’t very far away for antibiotics—that we may be in a situation where we have patients in our intensive care units, or patients getting urinary-tract infections for which we do not have antibiotics.” And Lance Price, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, said, “If our leaders were waiting to act until they could see the cliff’s edge—I hope this opens their eyes to the abyss that lies before us.”

More than 70 percent of medically important antibiotics are sold each year for use in animal agriculture. These drugs are not just used when animals get sick, but are primarily given to animals  who are not sick, in order to promote faster growth and compensate for inhumane, overcrowded, stressful, and often unsanitary factory farm conditions.

Scientists around the world have warned that excessive use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is contributing to the emergence of antibiotic resistant infections in humans. In 2013, the CDC reported that more than two million people in the United States get infected with drug resistant bacteria each year, and that there are at least 23,000 deaths. The CDC recently stated, “Resistant bacteria in food-producing animals are of particular concern. Food animals serve as a reservoir of resistant pathogens and resistance mechanisms that can directly or indirectly result in antibiotic resistant infections in humans.”

It was just ast year that scientists in China first reported Colistin-resistant bacteria in pigs and humans. Colistin is widely used in animal agriculture in China and the emergence of resistance is believed to be associated with these uses. The Colistin-resistant gene, mcr-1, has since also been found in bacteria in Europe, Africa, South America, Canada, and now the United States.

With the apparent worldwide distribution of the mcr-1 gene, it is only a matter of time before any one of a number of multi-drug resistant bacterial strains also acquire resistance to Colistin. At that point, there will be no antibiotic options to treat an infection, creating a public health crisis of extraordinary significance that could potentially lead to nightmarish scenarios.

“This all serves as a reminder that animal agriculture needs to use antibiotics judiciously and only for therapeutic reasons when animals are sick,” said Dr. Michael Blackwell, chief veterinary officer of The HSUS and former chief veterinarian of the United States Public Health Service. “The continued nontherapeutic use of antibiotics by animal agriculture threatens the very existence of society. If the mcr-1 gene is already circulating among U.S. swine, it is only a matter of time before it makes its way into our homes and our bodies.”

If this news isn’t an incentive to end the high volume production of animals in factory farms, I’m not sure what is. The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (H.R. 1552) and the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act  (S.621)  in Congress would phase out the routine, non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals. Call your lawmakers to get these bills passed.

This article was originally posted on Wayne Pacelle's blog.

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