Antibiotics Use in the Agriculture Industry
It is apparent that while medical use of antibiotics is a major contributor to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans, agricultural use also poses a significant problem. There is a compelling link between antibiotic treatment in farm animals and resistance in humans, and it is this link that is causing significant alarm among medical researchers.
Antibiotics are not only utilised in the treatment of humans, but also by agribusiness in treating animals. Both domestic and farm animals are treated with antibiotics, when are afflicted with bacterial diseases. Bacteria have a life cycle of approximately 2 to 3 weeks. Antibiotic use for domestic animals generally requires a prescription by a veterinarian; however antibiotic use in animal husbandry does not, and it is this that is a cause for concern, particularly as there is little information and statistics on the quantity and range of antibiotics used in this industry. It is recognised that the majority of antibiotics sold in the developed world are used in the agricultural industry, and that they are widely available.
Within this industry, antibiotics are not only used to treat sick farm animals, but also to promote faster growth and prevent disease in healthy ones. The raising of cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry typically involves antibiotic feed. This non-therapeutic use is prevalent at intensive agricultural operations known as ‘factory farms.’ Factory farms, which house large numbers of animals in small, confined areas, are susceptible to frequent disease outbreaks. Antibiotics are used on a heavy scale to control and prevent these outbreaks.
Feeding farm animals antibiotics leads to a build-up of bacteria that is antibiotic resistant. Antibiotic resistance in and around factory farms is in fact particularly rapid and vigorous, because the animals are given very low doses of antibiotics. Low amounts of antibiotics may be too little to kill all the bacteria, but just enough for the bacteria to survive, mutate and develop resistance. Indeed, the bacteria in these farms tend to be multi-resistant to antibiotics.
There is great concern over the increasingly strong link between antibiotic treatment and bacterial resistance in farm animals, and resistance in humans. Considering that farm animals and their by-products regularly end up as food that is consumed by humans, it should not come as a complete surprise. This link is still being disputed by many in the food industry, who claim that there is no concrete evidence of such a link. However, others in the health industry have argued that the link is as strong as that between smoking and lung cancer.
The controversy exists because the antibiotics being fed to farm animals are the same or closely related to antibiotics taken by humans to treat illnesses. This is believed to trigger cross-resistance. Indeed, new research has uncovered the DNA mechanism by which bacteria can spread the genes that confer antibiotic resistance. In other words, bacteria can not only mutate to achieve resistance, but they can also pass their resistance onto other strains of bacteria even to members of completely unrelated species. In essence, bacteria can teach each other how to outmanoeuvre antibiotics.
For example, since 1995, there has been considerable bacterial resistance to a class of antibiotics called ‘fluoroquinolones’ among the human population in the US, and some other western countries. Fluoroquinolones are considered to be one of the most valuable classes of antibiotics, because of their effectiveness against a broad range of bacteria (known as ‘broad spectrum’), and relative lack of side effects. Therefore as expected, this resistance has raised alarm bells among doctors. In 1995, fluoroquinolones were approved for use in poultry in the US and the Bayer Corporation continued to sell their fluoroquinolone antibiotic Baytril to poultry farmers until the Food and Drug Administration banned it in the middle of 2005.
Similarly, the heavy use of a glycopeptide antibiotic called Avoparcin in the animal livestock industry in the US, Europe and Australia is thought to have been directly responsible for the bacterial resistance to another glycopeptide vancomycin which is used to treat serious infections such as golden staph in humans. As a result, there have been a number of bacterium outbreaks in communities that are untreatable. One prevalent ‘super bug’ that has reared its ugly head consistently is VRE, or vancomycin-resistant enterococci, which can kill if it enters the bloodstream. In 1996, as a result of these outbreaks, Avoparcin once used to promote the growth of chickens and pigs was banned in Europe.
What you can do
Hygiene plays a large role in the link between antibiotic treatment in animals, and resistance in humans. Meat that is not washed correctly may harbour bacteria therefore the best advice to consumers is to wash hands, knives and cutting boards after preparing meat, and to ensure that it is cooked thoroughly.
Moreover, consumers dictate market trends; hence, in buying organic meat that has not been produced with the use of antibiotics, the mthey arket can be influenced. Concerns can also be voiced with major meat producers, suppliers, and purchasers concerning the use of antibiotics. A campaign to persuade McDonald’s a major meat purchaser to act on this issue has been successful. McDonald’s has demanded that its poultry suppliers phase out antibiotic use for growth promotion, is giving preference to suppliers who comply, and is establishing a monitoring system for compliance.
In addition, increased pressure is required to be placed upon pharmaceutical companies to cease selling antibiotics to the agricultural industry for non-therapeutic use, and especially antibiotics that are closely related to those used by humans. Demand the publication of accurate data on the production and use of antibiotics in all industries, in order that consumers can make informed decisions when purchasing meat and meat products.
Write a letter or email your Government representative, urge him or her to take action to ban antibiotics from non-therapeutic use in the agricultural industry, and to set up a monitoring system to ensure compliance.
Write a letter or email to the editor of your local newspaper; urge him or her to publish your concerns about non-therapeutic antibiotics use in the agricultural industry.