The Ever-Growing Giant of Antibiotic Resistance

In medical school, we all learned about antibiotic resistance in medical school. We didn’t see it too often except when we were on our Infectious Disease rotations. Usually it had something to do with a bacterium called Clostridium Difficile, better known as “C. Diff” (found in the large colon). The reason we knew about it is because it killed a lot of people. Scientists believe it proliferated due to overuse of broad spectrum antibiotics. These antibiotics kill both the bad and good bacteria. There may be more to the story.

Farmers also use antibiotics. For example, chicken companies, don’t just add antibiotics to treat sick chickens, they give it to the whole flock to ensure their health and promote growth. They treat it as a business decision. Often, an antibiotic called a Fluoroquinolone is commonly fed to the chickens. Fluoroquinolones are used in humans to treat diseases like E. Coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter. Ironically, there has been many reports of Salmonella transfer from chickens to humans this year. Today, bacteria known as super bugs are causing a lot of antibiotic resistant. The FDA has acknowledged this is a problem.

Americans consume a lot of chicken. So much that the companies (not sure I would call them farmers) are asking the government if they can increase processing from 140 chickens per minute (CPM) to 175 chickens per minute! Yes, these big companies look at the “CPM” the same as a speedometer in a car. Currently, large companies like Tyson Farms and others process about 170 million chickens per week. This is a phenomenon that has only existed in this century. From the WSJ article, “Meat-packers are seeking U.S. Department of Agriculture approval to raise processing-line speeds by about 25%, aiming to keep pace with growing domestic and international demand for poultry. The National Chicken Council, which represents poultry companies, said in a petition filed this month that would mean processing 175 birds a minute or more, up from most plants’ current limit of 140.”

Of course, you have the lobbyists saying, “This change will not affect food safety–if anything, it will enhance it,” wrote Michael Brown, the National Chicken Council’s president. He suggested that poultry plants could hire more workers, automate more tasks and change plant layouts to ensure employees’ safety. USDA officials said they are considering the petition.”

Then you have other side, “No one benefits but industry,” said Stan Painter, a USDA meat inspector for more than 30 years and chairman of a food inspectors’ union.”

Companies are simply meeting consumer demand, chicken producers are increasingly using label claims that tout non-GMO, natural, organic, hormone free and pesticide free products to convey a higher degree of healthiness. Hormones are not used in chickens (see my last article). The challenge is raising healthy food-producing chickens in packed, un-natural environments. Many recent Wall Street Journal articles have recently described the monumental increase in demand for chicken meat. Consumers must consider antibiotic-free and raised without antibiotics, spurred by reports of antibiotic resistant super bugs and antibiotic residues in meats.

Seizing on this as an opportunity, companies such as Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms Inc.; retailers Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc.; and fast food chains such as Chick-fil-A have jumped on the antibiotic-free bandwagon.

By adding antibiotics to 170 million chickens per week, it is no wonder that things like antibiotic resistance are coming to light. We will never have definitive proof whether or not the antibiotics given to animals will affect humans. Since the 1950s, antibiotics have been used routinely in the feed and drinking water of livestock raised for human consumption. This practice has resulted in animals being in better health overall as well as weighing more at the time of slaughter, an obvious financial benefit to the livestock companies that mass produce chickens. The mechanism of this weight gain is not completely understood but, in addition to creating generally healthier animals, it is believed that continuously administering low-level dosages of antibiotics results in better nutrient absorption. With the addition of antibiotics, the animals only need to consume about 30% of their normal calories to gain the same amount of weight. This is a huge savings in feed cost.

But questions remain, including the feasibility and sustainability of raising livestock in an antibiotic-free environment in sufficient in number to feed an ever-growing population of meat eaters, what this means in added cost to consumers and if antibiotic-free really means antibiotic-free. Along with this anticipated strain, chickens have to be raised in close proximity to one another and in such confined quarters, disease is a real problem that, if not contained, can wipe out a huge number of animals very quickly.

Come full circle to human health, due to increasing concerns over antibiotic resistant super bugs, there has been a growing pressure to eliminate the use of antibiotics in rearing livestock and chickens for human consumption-despite there being little evidence that antibiotic use in rearing food animals is the cause of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Writing in The Journal of Applied Poultry Research, poultry veterinarian Hector Cervantes explains:

“There is little convincing scientific evidence that the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals is contributing to the antibiotic resistance issues that are relevant to human medicine. However, public perception in first world countries suggests that consumers believe this to be true. According to the U.S. Organic Trade Association, sales of antibiotic-free (ABF) organic foods have grown at a rate of 20% per year since 1990. This is in spite of wider recognition that antibiotic resistance in humans is caused by antibiotic use in humans and not in food producing animals.”

Again, there are varying point of views whether the addition of antibiotics given to our poultry can cause anti-biotic resistance in humans. We may never get to the bottom of this issue, but the trend is certainly going towards eliminating giving unnecessary antibiotics to animals.

Current practice down on the farm

There are different dosage levels of antibiotics used in rearing livestock depending on the circumstance: growth promotion, disease prevention and disease treatment. It is FDA’s plan to phase out growth promotion use while preserving therapeutic use under the oversight of veterinarians. This is critical for the overall health of the animals, which are often raised in close quarters in order to meet, in a cost-efficient manner, the demands of American’s ever-increasing appetite for meat.

It may be a step in the right direction that consumers are demanding antibiotic free chickens. Whether or not you agree with the notion that Americans consume 750 million chickens per week, the fact that millions of chickens need strong antibiotics in order to make it to market just doesn’t seem normal. This is supported by the facts that we are observing antibiotic resistance at alarming rates and that most of the antibiotics in this country are actually given to animals. Hopefully, studies may show decreased in antibiotic resistance in humans as we stop using them in our animals, time will tell. In the meantime, the main way things come to change is how Americans spend their money. Find farms that raise chickens in their natural environments. Inspiring people to get their meat from local farms is an old concept. It’s possible that antibiotic resistance won’t find their way to local farms.