Doctors Join Fight Against Livestock Antibiotics
By RP Siegel | August 19th, 2011 1 Comment
It’s been said that what you don’t know can’t hurt you, but I have a feeling, just a hunch, that the fellow who coined that phrase, is probably not around anymore.
Today’s post is about a subject that not a lot of people want to talk about, which is part of a bigger question that people don’t even want to think about; that being, where does our food come from?
The answer to the larger question, in the largest measure, is factory farms. There are many exceptions of course, but even when those are all combined, they only constitute a small portion of today’s dietary pie
Not only do we not want to know what goes on in factory farms, but the people who own and operate those farms don’t want us to know either. In fact, in Florida, it is now illegal to film the operation of a factory farm. I don’t think this is because the cows and chickens are camera shy. More likely, if people could see how their food is actually being produced, they would likely try very hard to obtain their food another way. Which brings us to today’s story.
A number of doctors are beginning to express concerns about the growing incidence of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria in humans. Much of this proliferation is believed to be the result of the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock as a preventative measure in response to unsanitary conditions and overcrowding. According to theWorldwatch Institute’s 2006 State of the world report, 74 percent of the world’s poultry, 43 percent of beef, and 68 percent of eggs are now produced this way.
Because antibiotics kill off entire populations of bacteria, any organisms that manage to survive will find themselves with little to no competition for nutrients and will therefore flourish. The resulting antibiotic-resistant strains have become highly problematic. In fact, one group of pathogens known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), is now responsible for more deaths each year than AIDS.
The recent outbreak of salmonella in ground turkey that killed one person and sent over a hundred to the hospital, led to the second largest recall of its kind. Thirty-six million pounds of ground meat were destroyed.
The part of the antibiotic resistance story that is associated with food production “is largely hidden for docs,” said Oakland area cardiologist Jeff Ritterman, one of many doctors who have begun to get involved in this issue. Ritterman claims he was shocked when he first heard that 80 percent of the nation’s antibiotics are given to livestock.
While industry leaders and their PR representatives deny any connection between the use of livestock antibiotics and the outbreaks of resistant strains, a growing number of doctors are taking exception. It’s a statistical near-certainty that given this many opportunities to proliferate, drug-resistant strains will inevitably emerge.
Lucia Sayre, co-executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility(PSR), says “Nobody believes anyone more than their docs and nurses,” Sayre said, citing a recent Gallup Poll that found 70 percent of people trusted their doctor’s advice without a second opinion. “We’re trying to max their voice.” He believes that the power and respect of the medical community can leverage a movement to change the food industry.
“A doctor may be able to help individuals in their office, but changes in policy can lift the health of an entire population,”Ritterman said. “We need to really advance American medicine to the policy stage. Doctors are trained to see the world through a health lens. Politicians, businessmen and economists are not.”
Hospitals such as Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vt., which serves an estimated 2 million meals a year to patients, visitors and employees have begun phasing out foods produced with non-therapeutic antibiotics. Today, about 90 percent of their beef meets this goal.
“I kept seeing more and more cases of antibiotic resistance at the hospital. It doesn’t make sense to keep doing it the way we’re doing it, not to mention that cases of resistance are costly,” said Diane Imrie, director of nutrition services at Fletcher Allen. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases in 2009 found that antibiotic-resistant infections cost U.S. hospitals more than $20 billion annually.
PSR has helped coordinate physicians in their push for new federal environmental health legislation. More than 1,000 signatures have been collected for the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, introduced in March after getting buried in Congress in 2007 and 2009. Another 378 groups have now endorsed the bill, including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Antibiotics are one of the most useful and important medical advances in recent history. Their effectiveness, however, is being compromised by bacterial resistance, arising in part from excessive use of antibiotics in animal agriculture,” wrote Michael D. Maves, executive vice president of the AMA, in a letter of support for the legislation.
Their effort will have to overcome resistance from folks like pharmaceutical lobbyist Richard Carnevale, of theAnimal Health Institute, who objects to making the changes needed to eliminate the widespread use of antibiotics, such as reducing crowding and providing better sanitary conditions, saying that it would “increase production costs.” Some might say, you pay now or you pay later.
Meanwhile, until we can get such legislation, if you choose to eat meat, you should seriously consider buyingorganic. A recent study shows that poultry raised using organic “practices have significantly lower levels of antibiotic- and multi-drug resistant enterococci bacteria.”
[Image credit/maraker/Flickr Creative Commons]
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.