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June 4th, 2015

You’ve Got Questions About Antibiotic Resistance; We’ve Got Answers

The original version of this blog post was published in June 2014. It has been updated to reflect recent statistics and events.

By Sydney Baldwin

Antibiotic-resistant super bugs pose one of the most threatening public health problems.You’ve heard about antibiotic-resistance: that scary scenario when someone is sick with an infection, but the medicine that’s supposed to treat it doesn’t work. Major health organizations around the world warn that antibiotics are quickly losing their effectiveness, and pharmaceutical companies aren’t acting fast enough to create new ones. What’s scary is that, according to our researchers’ analysis of Center for Disease Control and Prevention data, over 20 percent of antibiotic-resistant infections are linked to food.

Even if you don’t eat meat or live near a factory farm, you’re still susceptible. Read on to learn why we’re all at risk to contract an antibiotic-resistant infection. Then tell Congress to stand up for the public, not corporations, by introducing tighter regulations that will help stop the misuse of antibiotics on factory farms.

1.    Exactly how do factory farms misuse antibiotics?

Factory farms give animals low doses of antibiotics to compensate for overcrowded, filthy conditions that lead to disease.  In fact, 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in agriculture, but not necessarily because the animals ingesting them are sick. Unfortunately, that’s making us sick.

This practice, called nontherapeutic use, creates the perfect stew for bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics to thrive and spread. These superbugs – antibiotic-resistant bacteria bred on factory farms – end up in food and in the environment, which puts everyone at risk, regardless of where you live or what you eat.

2.    Is there a better way for farms to use antibiotics?

Yes. Just like us, sick farm animals respond well to antibiotic treatment, but shouldn’t take it in small doses to prevent disease. Antibiotics should be administered on farms to help cure infections in animals, not to compensate for unhygienic conditions. Rather than administering non-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to prevent illness and disease, factory farms should make an effort to improve the cleanliness of their facilities. For instance, livestock farmers in Denmark, where nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics in livestock are banned, have shown its possible to change their practices and raise healthy animals.

3.    I don’t eat meat or poultry, so antibiotic-resistant superbugs on factory farms don’t affect me, right?

Not exactly. Even if you don’t eat meat, living near farms that use these practices increases your risk of exposure. Manure from these farms is used as fertilizer on nearby fields, thereby spreading antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the environment. And even then, the science of how bacteria spread and even share antibiotic resistance genes is complex, so understanding exactly where an antibiotic-resistant infection comes from is complicated. For example, one form of MRSA has been traced back to pigs, but spreads in the community to humans.

4.    Is antibiotic misuse a crisis specific to the United States?

No. Factory farms in a number of countries outside the United States misuse antibiotics, and some are taking steps to address that problem. Recently, the European Union has started to limit the use of antibiotics in raising livestock.

5.    What is the best way to avoid becoming sick from this bacteria?

Data from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention shows that every year, over two million people suffer from antibiotic-resistant infections and 23,000 people die from them. The risks are very real.

Following good food safety practices will reduce the risk of foodborne antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and buying meat raised without antibiotics reduces the risk of exposure. But we can’t cook or shop our way out of this problem. We must urge Congress to implement legislation that would help end the unnecessary use of antibiotics on factory farms. Take action today.

6.     I keep hearing about restaurants, such as McDonald’s, are switching to chicken raised without antibiotics and other food companies using less antibiotics. Is that good enough?

No. The problem is too big to rely on individual companies to make the right decision. Consumers deserve a baseline of good practices when it comes to antibiotic use in livestock and poultry production, and it shouldn’t be left up to consumers to try to keep track of which brand is using which practices. We need Congress to end the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms and create enforceable standard across the industry.

Sydney Baldwin is a former Food & Water Watch communications intern.

2 Comments on You’ve Got Questions About Antibiotic Resistance; We’ve Got Answers

  1. Mary says:

    Can a person with allergies to antibiotics suffer an adverse reaction to food infused with antibiotics? Several years ago while watching doc it was mentioned that people with an allergy to penicillon may experience problems after eating turkey. Is it true?

  2. Sarah Borron says:

    Good question. In general, the main public health danger from antibiotic use in livestock is the bacteria made stronger through antibiotic use, not antibiotic residues in meat. There are practices in place to ensure meat and poultry have minimal antibiotic residues to avoid any kind of reaction in those with antibiotic allergies. That said, we would always advise speaking with your physician about any risks to you personally.

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