Antibiotics in Livestock Feed Endanger The Entire World


As it turns out, this whole bit about the use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry is a complex issue.  It’s well beyond anything that anyone would guess at first blush.  The best online summary is the position paper put out by Food Marketing Institute.  Curiously enough, it doesn’t have a year on it.  Based on the references, I’d guess it was probably around 2005.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of therapeutically low doses of antibiotics in feed.  However, very few studies were conducted.  They decided that giving little bits of antibiotics to animals would help avoid illness.  What this means in practical life is that they will grow faster and produce more meat prior to being slaughtered and eaten.

Everybody agrees that using too many antibiotics in humans can cause humans to become resistant to those antibiotics.  This has been blamed on everything from patients who want a prescription for an illness that isn’t caused by bacteria to doctors feeling they need to give a prescription to justify their fee.  This kind of talk has been around for a long time.

There is a new body of scientific evidence that strongly suggests there is a link between low level use of antibiotics in farm animals and an increased resistance to the same or similar antibiotics that are given later to humans. However, much of the evidence is not necessarily direct.

Humans are given newer and more sophisticated antibiotics all the time – ones that have undergone molecular changes that allow them to remain effective. Even a human who has never been exposed to antibiotics before may already be resistant.

Most of the time, people get antibiotics in one of two ways – they are directly prescribed or they have been used in the feed of animals they eat.  The Department of Agriculture and all kinds of people have developed guidelines to limit low level use.  Even the McDonald’s Corporation, which is perhaps the largest private buyer of livestock products, has taken a position.  They have started requiring suppliers to stop using antibiotics purely as growth promoters if they are those that are also given to humans.

The people who grow animals and sell meat to folks like McDonald’s challenged this as being an unscientific decision because there isn’t enough evidence.  So we are back to an idea that comes up often in research science.   How much evidence is enough evidence?  I’ve always felt the answer is that you don’t risk human life if there is another way to do it.

In truth, this creates a controversy where human life is pitted against increased profitability.  Corporations want to grow bigger and fatter and make more money.  There are a couple of studies that are cited by several different texts that are probably considered classic by this time — like the one by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that looked at salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli and their very clear increase in resistance to antibiotics.

Antibiotics have also become a major cause of human and animal illness in United Kingdom and Europe.  The United Kingdom and Europe seem to have been ahead of us in banning this process. They seem to be, as in some other things, a little bit more willing to bite the bullet for a loss of profitability when lives can be saved.

In Minnesota, infections from Campylobacter jejuni — a group of antibiotics frequently used in livestock and poultry — were shown to increase dramatically between 1992 and 1998.  And we’re talking about bacteria that are taken in samples from humans who are suffering from food borne illness.

Syneicid — a brand name whose generic is Quinupristin/Balfopristin – is an antibiotic that patients just haven’t been exposed to.  It’s usually used as a last resort kind of treatment for bacteria that are resistant to all other antibiotics.  If this doesn’t work, people can die.

The scientific community doesn’t have any one position.  The strongest opponents are people like the World Health Organization and other people I would tend to believe.  Even the American Medical Association has adopted a resolution that opposes all use of these antibiotics. Unfortunately, these positions seem to be the last thing anyone considers when making their determinations.

One of the questions that should be raised by the American Veterinary Medical Association is what’s good for the animals.  But it looks as if many of their studies are done in cooperation with those who manufacture medications that are given to animals, so one can hardly expect such research to be without bias.

There are some who claim that the data isn’t clinically significant – such as the European Federation of Animal Health. They claim that anti-microbial resistance doesn’t affect a large number of humans and therefore could be used as a growth promoter.

If I have one bias here, it should be clear.  Early in my career, I used animals in clinical research.  I can’t say that euthanasia of an animal is my favorite thing to do, but I believe that species are centric.  A person becomes a physician to save a human life.  Through all of the bickering — as nicely as it is reviewed by people such as the Food Marketing Institute — it comes down to what is more important.  Is it human life or money produced by an industry?  If we do not always choose human life, we are not being true to our own species.

I don’t know how long it takes and I don’t know what the numbers are.  But with every antibiotic used and every drug prescribed, we should not be treated as less than animals.  We are treating the whole of the earth.  And as medicine begins looking at sustainable practices for the first time, we need to look at the context of the whole earth.  If we don’t, we are promoting the death of the human species.

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Comments on Antibiotics in Livestock Feed Endanger The Entire World Leave a Comment

September 25, 2012

Karla Rainey @ 6:23 pm #

This is very controversial indeed. One that might change the perception of meat products in the world market. This is very alarming and if research proves it to be risky for humans, I can’t imagine the chaos that comes with it. Prices become erratic and some businesses will tend to fall. When human life is threatened, there can be no limits what people will do to save it.

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