Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Antibiotics, Food and Superbugs

Cause of death: scratched knee. What sounds like fiction could soon be reality. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that if we continue our reckless use and abuse of antibiotics in animal husbandry, we could enter a post-antibiotic era in which health conditions that are now easily curable will again become lethal. In spite of this, few countries have addressed the use of antibiotics in livestock raising. Antibiotics are used to ensure that the animals endure the conditions in factory farms until slaughter. A large part, however, is also used to increase and speed growth. Pigs that are given antibiotics, for example, need 10 to 15 percent less feed to reach their market weight.

Although the European Union prohibited antibiotics to promote growth in 2006, this did not lead to a significant decrease in their use on farms. Systematic inquiries have recently revealed that 8,500 tonnes of antimicrobial ingredients were distributed in 25 European countries in 2011. Germany has the highest (overall) consumption at 1,600 tonnes a year. However Denmark, where veterinarians are subject to relatively tight controls, reports only a third of the German per animal head level.

In other parts of the world, the use of these valuable drugs is subject to hardly any regulations or restrictions whatsoever. In China, it is estimated that more than 100,000 tonnes of antibiotics are fed to livestock every year – mostly unmonitored. In the United States, livestock production consumed 13,000 tonnes of antibiotics in 2009, and accounts for nearly 80 percent of all the antibiotics used in the country. With resistant bacteria and food-borne illnesses on the rise, the US Food and Drug Administration recently recommended restricting the application of antibiotics in livestock production “to those uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health”. It is doubtful whether these gently worded, voluntary guidelines can limit the overuse – and the demise – of antibiotics in the future.

Industrial farming has intensified at a rapid pace during the past decades and antibiotics have been one of the main driving forces behind this process. They perform two functions: they help animals survive the dismal conditions of livestock production until slaughter, and they make the animals grow faster. According to WHO, more antibiotics are now being fed to healthy animals rather than to sick human beings. The use of antibiotics as growth promoters is legal in large parts of the world, and until recently, nearly all largescale meat production in developed countries involved the continuous, low-dose administration of antibiotics in animal feed.

Livestock are usually given the same antibiotics as humans. Every time an antibiotic is administered, there is a chance that bacteria develop resistance to it. “Superbugs” – pathogens such as Escherichia coli, salmonella or campylobacter that can infect humans as well – are resistant to several different antibiotics, and are therefore particularly difficult to treat. The imprudent use of antibiotics in livestock production exacerbates the resistance problem. They are usually administered to whole herds of animals in the feed or water. It is impossible to ensure that every single animal receives a sufficient dose of the drug. Diagnostic tests are rarely used to check whether the right kind of antibiotic is being used.

Resistant bacteria can pass from animals to humans in many ways. An obvious link is the food chain. When the animals are slaughtered and processed in an abattoir, the bacteria can colonize the meat and be carried into consumers’ kitchens. But that is not the only way that humans can be exposed to such superbugs. Resistant bacteria can be blown several hundred metres by exhaust fans of livestock houses. The bacteria are abundant in manure, which is spread on fields as fertilizer. Once in the soil, the bacteria can be washed into rivers and lakes. Bacteria interact both on farms and in the environment. They develop further and reproduce, exchanging genetic information. In doing so, they enlarge the pool of bacteria that is resistant to once-powerful antibiotics.

The production of animals and meat is globally connected with trade and transport links spanning the globe. These links enable resistant bacteria to spread rapidly. Superbugs are, in the words of the WHO, “notorious globe-trotters”. The imprudent use of antibiotics in one part of the world thus poses a threat not only to the local human population, but endangers the health of people in other parts of the world as well.

What can I do about this problem? In organic farming systems the routine or preventative use of antibiotics is banned so we'd recommend eating organic meat.


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