For decades, the livestock industry has perpetrated a grave injustice by providing subtherapeutic levels of antimicrobials in animal feed. The use of antimicrobials, some the same or in the same family as antibiotics used in humans, increases the growth rate of animals and farmers are always looking for ways to get animals fatter, cheaper and quicker.
Knowledge that subtherapeutic use could increase antibiotic resistant bacteria isn't new. Alexander Fleming warned in 1945 that his discovery, penicillin, when used in doses insufficient to treat disease could create penicillin-resistant bacteria. In 1951, UC Davis scientists published a paper that subtherapeutic use of streptomycin in turkeys resulted in streptomycin-resistant coliform bacteria (within three days, no less).
What is so disturbing about the use of antibiotics in the livestock sector is the abject lack of transparency. There are no federal or state laws that require farmers to share the nutrient content of animal feed nor are there reporting regulations. We don't know how much antibiotics are being used - we just know that it's a lot and that the antibiotics are ending up in our air and water. Best guesses put it at between 17-24 million pounds of antibiotics are used as additives annually (guesses that the pork and broiler industry folks consider outlandishly high, no surprise there).
In the article, an experiment is described in which researchers traveled behind a truck transporting broiler birds to the slaughterhouse. Air measurements for enterococci bacteria were taken before and after. Prior to driving behind these trucks, samples taken from the air and from surfaces in the vehicle showed no antibiotic-resistant enterococci bacteria. After the trip? A quarter of the bacteria were resistant to several antimicrobials, including tetracycline, erythomycin and streptomycin. Scary stuff.
I think the essence of this issue is summed up by a quote at the end from Ellen Silbergeld (PhD) who has done numerous studies on the issues of antibiotic resistance.
These are feed additives. It's like using antibiotics as hair dye. We have this practice of permitting the addition of almost any antibiotic that you can think of to animal feed, for no therapeutic purpose, under conditions that absolutely favor the rise of resistancy. We have no controls or management of these wastes. Our food safety system is a shambles. This is a situation that is widely recognized by the World Health Organization, the American Medical Assocation, and by others, and nothing happens! It's astounding to me!.....Thousands of people die annually from antibiotic resistance. Thousands. Now some of it could be due to overuse of antibiotics in the human medical field. But certainly the situation is exacerbated exponentially by using antimicrobials in a manner that is certain to create a friendly environment for resistance.
Sometimes I think we're such a dumb species, we don't deserve to survive on this planet. I mean, how many times do we have to do this?"
Choosing a vegan and vegetarian diet is certainly helpful as it reduces the demand for cheap meat, dairy and eggs. But we must all pull together to stop this - vegans and vegetarians won't be saved from antibiotic resistance when the bacteria can travel from person-person, fly-person or from simply traveling behind a tractor hauling birds to their death.
There are two federal bills that would phase out the use of antimicrobials as additives:
H.R. 1549 and S. 619 - you can ask your respresentatives to co-sponsore the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act by using this form.
You can learn more here at saveantibiotics.org (a website of the Pew Charitable Trusts).