Antibiotics in Animal Products

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Health Sciences Institute e-Alert

May 8, 2002


Dear Reader,

Last month I told you about a mystery in upstate New York, where someone has been surreptitiously contaminating milk with antibiotics. So far, authorities still don't know who is sabotaging the milk or why. But the situation has focused more attention on the day-to-day contamination that occurs on the vast majority of dairy and cattle farms every day - where farmers routinely force-feed their own animals antibiotics.

Many health authorities and activists have been warning of this danger for years. Yet most people still don't think the threat is real. In fact, we even received a number of disbelieving e-mails in the HSI mailbox after I wrote that first e-Alert. Milk is dangerous? Even contaminated? And by dairy farmers themselves? Couldn't be.

But concerns about farming's role in the rise of antibiotic resistance is not hysterical overreaction. Recent research shows that consuming even small doses of antibiotics through dairy products and meat can have potentially severe, long-range consequences on your health and on our collective health, as the number of antibiotic resistant strains increases.

Doing the math

The use of antibiotics in agriculture is not new. But it seems to be growing each year - and even the mainstream is beginning to take notice. In recent years, a growing body of research has shown that antibiotics are grossly overused in dairy and livestock farming - and that that overuse may play a significant role in the development of human antibiotic resistance.

Consider this: the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass., found that as much as 80% of the total antibiotic production in the U.S. is used in agriculture - not just on dairy animals, but on every type of livestock and poultry. A substantial portion of that is not even used to fight disease, but to promote growth. Now, a new study out of the University of Maryland supports the idea that agricultural antibiotic use may be introducing new antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria into the human population - while at the same time making antibiotics less effective in fighting disease.

The study, published in the April 30th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, evaluated the medical impact of simultaneously using the same antibiotics in livestock animals and as medicine for humans. Using complex mathematical models, the scientists calculated humans' every day exposure to animal bacteria and each bacteria's rate of transmission. And based on their research, here's their terrifying conclusion: by the time an antibiotic-resistant bacteria infection could be detected in humans, its course would be irreversible.

I don't mind telling you that the math in this study is way over my head. But even though the model is theoretical, the results are logical - and the science makes a strong argument that something needs to be done.

Who's guarding the henhouse?

Of course, not everyone agrees. One critic of this study is Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council who dismisses the conclusions as not being "real-world" research. He defends the use of antibiotics by poultry farmers, saying, "They are always used in a responsible manner in the chicken industry."

Hmmm. Why am I not convinced? The National Chicken Council doesn't have anything to gain (or lose) in this issue, do they? The truth is, the mainstream has been dismissing concerns about agricultural antibiotic use for years as baseless and not supported by science. Now, there's more and more science to back it up - but now the research isn't good enough.

The authors of the UM study recommend that authorities regulate and limit the agricultural use of new antibiotics to extend their effectiveness in humans. With all due respect to the Maryland scientists, this isn't a "real-world" solution. We already know that farmers are persistent and can be quite creative in their efforts to sidestep regulations by finding ways to mask their use of antibiotics. As I reported in the first e-Alert on this issue, use of unapproved (and therefore, undetectable) antibiotics in agriculture is widespread. After all, there's a huge economic risk for farmers in NOT using them.

Bringing it all back home

So what can we do? On the large scale, the problem is daunting. But in our own homes, there are steps we can take to protect ourselves and our families. Many people simply choose not to eat animal products. That's one alternative. But if you do eat dairy, eggs, or meats, choose organic whenever possible. Organic farmers do not use antibiotics or growth hormones. One bright spot: organic products are much more accessible that they used to be. You can now find organic dairy and meats - clearly marked - in many mainstream supermarkets.

There's also another way you can help fight the spread of antibiotic-resistant animal bacteria. It's not new advice, but it bears repeating. Cook your meats thoroughly, and be diligent in scrubbing cutting boards and utensils, and always washing your hands well after handling raw meats.

And, remember, farming is a business first and foremost. So given the opportunity to choose whether you want your milk and meat with "antibiotics added" or "guaranteed antibiotic free," speak up - with your wallet. And let the farming industry know that you demand honest information and antibiotic-free foods.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute