Rise of the Superbugs


Imagine this: You’re having a normal day until you gradually notice a little sore throat and begin to feel a tad feverish. You assume you must have the flu. You go to bed and rest. The next day, you can barely breathe, and you rush to the hospital. Things go quickly downhill and soon, you’re trying to write down your last wishes – your body riddled with an aggressive infection – while the doctors put you in a coma to save your life. You may or may not make it. Sounds like something out of a made-for-TV script, right?

Now consider: The U.S death rate from the staph infection MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) surpassed the death rate from AIDS way back in 2005.

And MSRA is just one of the antibiotic resistant diseases that can infect people. Others include food-borne bacteria such as e-coli, salmonella, and still others that are associated with poverty and crowding, such as tuberculosis and typhoid.

These “superbugs” I’m concerned with today are the ones associated with food and farms and – though the drug industry and some farmers won’t agree – the evidence is overwhelming that they are at least partially a result of dosing farm animals with subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics added to their feed.

I used to think this was done to keep the animals healthy. And that’s part of it. But the reason it’s necessary is because most farm animals live in such crowded, filthy conditions. What I didn’t know until recently is that farmers also administer antibiotics to help the animals grow twice as fast. This boosts production and their bottom line.

In fact, according to Pew, up to 70 percent of all antibiotics consumed in the U.S. are given to healthy farm animals, not people.

(note: the above statistic was found on the Pew website but it is actually from the Union of Concerned Scientists from a 2001 report titled Hogging It! Estimates of Antimicrobial Abuse in Livestock, Mellon, Margaret, Charles Benbrook & Karen Lutz Benbrook, Cambridge Mass)

The problem with these practices, aside from the harm done to the animals themselves who have to live under such conditions, is that these superbugs, which at first only occurred in hospitals, have been unleashed on the community at large.

It used to be that MSRA was commonly found only in hospitals and nursing homes, but recently, another type of MRSA has occurred among otherwise healthy people in the wider community. This form, community-associated MRSA, or CA-MRSA, is responsible for serious skin and soft tissue infections and for a dangerous form of pneumonia.

Though MSRA can be related to farming, it isn’t a food-borne illness. But salmonella and e-coli both are, and today there more aggressive forms than in the past, making these diseases more harmful. Both can be caused by poor farming practices, as can their drug resistant mutations.

There have been multiple studies, farm surveys and stories that make the link between antibiotic use on farms and increases in drug-resistant diseases look increasingly apparent, including in the Academy Award nominated documentary Food Inc. It’s only been recently that the mainstream media has acknowledged the link between animal husbandry and the rise of “superbugs.”

Katie Couric took on the story last month for CBS News. Bravely slogging through pig farms (while remaining perfectly groomed), interviewing farmers and victims of drug resistant staph who worked on farms or lived in farm families, she presented problem clearly: These bugs are being spread through air, water and food. We know our food contains e-coli and salmonella, and MSRA has also been found in our meat supply. Nobody knows how prevalent it is because, as Couric said, “A very small amount is actually tested for MSRA.”

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.

Image: James Jordan

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.