That the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock feed (especially in the US) is creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria isn’t a particularly new argument. But while those involved in the animal production business may surprisingly beg to differ, doctors are now getting in on the act and voicing their concerns as this story by Lynee Peeples of the Huffington Post explains.
“Here’s the big secret that no one wants to talk about: We're not very good at keeping what's inside a cow's intestines out of the meat."
The roomful of young doctors at Oakland Children's Hospital chuckled as retired cardiologist Jeff Ritterman whispered audibly, his hand hiding his mouth. He went on to explain in less dramatic fashion how the widespread use of antibiotics to treat sick livestock, prevent the spread of disease in cramped conditions or simply promote animal growth has fueled the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that is now making many infections in humans harder to treat.
Some human infections now resist multiple antibiotics; the pathogens include methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a pathogen responsible for taking more lives each year than AIDS.
Earlier this month, stores and consumers across the country discarded 36 million pounds of ground turkey in the second-largest recall in U.S. history. More than 100 people became sick from the salmonella-tainted meat; at least one person died.
The firms feeding animals antibiotics question direct links to such outbreaks, but these kinds of tragedies come as little surprise to the medical community, which has long been confronted with the consequences of antibiotic resistance. "Everyone has seen cases of MRSA. Every doctor is schooled in how many seconds to wash their hands, and nurses are told to get rid of their nails," Ritterman, now a city councilmember in Richmond, Calif., told The Huffington Post. "It's a helpless feeling when your patient dies of an infection that you can't cure."
More than 75 years after antibiotics first debuted as the miracle cure, treating an infection today often requires greater doses, a second drug or even riskier options.
"Antibiotics are probably as big of an advance in medicine as there has ever been," Ritterman said. "We are undoing our greatest achievement."
Eating contaminated meat is not the only route to an antibiotic-resistant infection. Contact with animals, meat or milk -- and even exposure to bacteria via the air or water -- can pose a public health threat. Of course, blame has also long been directed at the widespread use of antibiotics within medicine.
Doctors have begun limiting the antibiotic prescriptions they write, aware that misuse or overuse of the drugs enables antibiotic-resistant bacteria to proliferate faster than their antibiotic-susceptible counterparts. In other words, what doesn't kill them makes them stronger -- potentially turning them into "superbugs" that can outsmart medicine's current range of weaponry.
But while most doctors are familiar with the growing threat of antibiotic resistance, fewer are aware of the shared responsibility of agribusiness.