Trouble on the Factory Farm

Consensus: Antibiotic use in food animals contributes to antibiotic resistant bacteria transferred to humans

By Ben Lilliston, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

JANUARY 17, 2003: Most patients with food poisoning don't need to be treated with antibiotics. But for those whose infections spread beyond the intestine, antibiotic treatment can be live saving. Two studies released this month indicate that several critical antibiotics may be losing their effectiveness. The studies found that bacteria commonly found on supermarket chicken and poultry are getting stronger - developing resistance to many of the most valuable antibiotics used to treat humans.

Both studies pointed to the overuse of drugs in factory poultry and livestock farms as part of the problem. The scientific consensus is now that antibiotic use in food animals contributes to antibiotic resistant bacteria transferred to humans, mainly through contaminated food. The studies called for an end to the routine feeding of antibiotics to animals that are not sick - both to promote growth and to compensate for crowded, stress-inducing, and unsanitary conditions that are conducive to infection.

Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria are the two most common bacterial causes of U.S. foodborne illness, and are responsible for over 3.3 million infections and more than 650 deaths every year. The two new studies found high levels of Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria on supermarket poultry and that these bacteria were resistant to important antibiotics - like ciprofloxacin (Cipro), Synercid and tetracycline - that are commonly used to treat humans.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Sierra Club commissioned an independent laboratory this Fall to test 200 fresh chickens and 200 ground turkey. The lab found that 95 percent of the whole chickens were contaminated with Campylobacter bacteria and nearly 62 percent of the Campylobacter tested were resistant to one or multiple antibiotics. Salmonella bacteria were found in 45 percent of ground turkey purchased, and 62 percent of Salmonella from turkey tested were found resistant to one or more antibiotics.

Another study published in the January issue of Consumer Reports found that 49 percent of the chickens bought at supermarkets and other stores are contaminated with Campylobacter and/or Salmonella bacteria. Ninety percent of the Campylobacter tested and 34 percent of the Salmonella tested showed resistance to at least one antibiotic.

When bacteria is resistant to antibiotics that doctors rely on for treating infections, it puts patients' lives at risk by taking away a critical tool for recovery. These antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are more potent, increasing the likelihood that you will become sick and stay sick longer than if exposed to non-resistant organisms.

Bacteria become resistant from over-exposure to antibiotics. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to pigs, poultry and cattle for reasons other than treating disease, like growth promotion. The majority of such medicines are "medically important," and are identical, or nearly so, to human antibiotics.

There are a few steps that should be taken immediately to protect the effectiveness of these antibiotics. Congress should ban routine uses of medically important antibiotics in healthy poultry and other livestock. Over 30 medical groups, including the American Medical Association, have endorsed this action.

Poultry producers should stop feeding antibiotics to birds that are not sick. Four of the top five chicken producers already have sworn off any use of Cipro-like antibiotics. Large volume buyers, like McDonald's, Popeye's, Hardee's, Subway, Domino's and Wendy's all now claim they refuse to buy chicken treated with Cipro-like antibiotics.

Aside from taking steps to cook meat and poultry thoroughly, consumers can buy poultry raised without antibiotics. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has put together an on-line state-by-state listing of meat and poultry producers using no antibiotics, or no routine antibiotics, in addition to restaurants and other places to buy these products -

In the fight against foodborne illness we are living on borrowed time when it comes to antibiotics. But there are immediate steps that producers, consumers and the government can take to maintain the effectiveness of these life-saving drugs and reduce illness and death from bacterial infections.

Ben Lilliston is the Communications coordinator with the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy