If you think of antibiotic resistant pathogens, MRSA, a resistant staph bacteria, may be the first thing come to mind. There are many other strains of microbes resistant to antibiotics that are making the rounds, however, in hospitals, human communities, and even in the water and sand at the beach.
There are many reasons for the increase in these superbugs. Human overuse of antibiotics is partially to blame. However, we also need to look to our agricultural system as we consider the issue. For decades now, farmers have been using antibiotics as a means of growing lots of animals in increasingly close quarters at a low cost.
Industrial livestock operations use concentrated animal feeding operations – CAFOs – that increase the rate of disease transmission. Farmers who run CAFOs have so many animals to take care of that they use antibiotics proactively. We ordinarily think of being proactive as a positive thing, but when it comes to antibiotic administration, it brings about problems. When farmers give antibiotics to their animals as a matter of routine, as a way to prevent, rather than treat, illness, they help to create antibiotic-resistant diseases that can be transmitted to human beings.
This way of farming has become so common that many can’t imaging doing away with it. Asked about the idea of doing away with preventive antibiotic administration by farmers, the State Veterinarian of South Carolina asks, incredulously, “Are we just going to wait for the animals to get sick?”
Well, that is what we humans are expected to do with our own children, so why can’t we do it with cows and pigs? Actually, many farmers already don’t use antibiotics except to treat animal illnesses as they occur. These farmers stay in business, but the meat and dairy products they sell are more expensive.
Back in March, U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter, from western New York, introduced a bill, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009, to level the playing field in agricultural markets, and require all livestock operations to follow the more restrained focus on treatment in the use of antibiotics. An equivalent bill was introduced in the Senate by Edward Kennedy.
“When we go to the grocery store to pick up dinner, we should be able to buy our food without worrying that eating it will expose our family to potentially deadly bacteria that will no longer respond to our medical treatments. Unless we act now, we will unwittingly be permitting animals to serve as incubators for resistant bacteria.
It is time for Congress to stand with scientists, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the National Academy of Sciences and do something to address the spread of resistant bacteria. We cannot afford for our medicines to become obsolete.”
Slaughter speaks from a position of authority as a microbiologist. But then, there are other positions of authority on the issue. Louise Slaughter is not a farmer, and farmers complain that the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act would drive up the cost of food.
Would that be so bad? Here in the United States, there is not a genuine shortage of food. In fact, many people argue that Americans have too much meat in our diets. Do we have a right to cheap meat and milk? Shouldn’t we consumers bear some of the cost of a world with fewer antibiotic-resistant disease organisms?