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The Planet
Antibiotic Overload

Resistant bacteria threaten human health.

By Sarah Wootton

Laura KrebsbachLaura Krebsbach can't seem to get off the farm. After growing up in a rural Nebraska town - where her family still farms - she moved to Lincoln and figured she'd left planting and harvesting behind. Then she met and married a man whose family lives on a homestead that's been in their family for 125 years.

"And our mothers went to the same country school!" laughs Krebsbach.

Now, as a Sierra Club organizer working on farm issues, including fighting to stop pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, her farming background gives her credibility.

Krebsbach is one of a network of organizers promoting locally grown, antibiotic-free meat from family farms as an alternative to drug-laden meat produced by contract workers at hog and chicken factories.

The campaign's primary objectives are to stop new CAFOs and limit the pollution of existing ones, but curtailing antibiotic use in animal production has become an increasingly important part of the campaign.

"The risk to human health from feeding healthy animals antibiotics is yet another unacceptable result of factory farms," said Hank Graddy, chair of the Club's Clean Water/CAFO committee.

Crowded conditions and the pressure to produce animals quickly have led to the use of antibiotics in animal feed at factory farms, a practice that may foster the development of antibiotic-resistant Large corporations that operate CAFOs are running family farms out of business in part because the companies produce more animals at lower costs than local farms. Between 1982 and 1987, 443,000 hog producers went out of business, but the number of hogs produced stayed the same. More than 4 million American farms have gone out of business since 1940, many replaced by corporate-run farms.

CAFOs dispose of huge volumes of animal waste, polluting the air, groundwater, rivers and streams and leading to respiratory problems, contaminated drinking water and other health problems for neighbors. And while air and water pollution is jeopardizing the health of rural communities, the heavy use of antibiotics is compromising the effectiveness of antibiotics used to treat humans.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated that 70 percent of all antibiotics in the United States are used in healthy poultry, pigs and cattle.

Recent scientific studies suggest that routine antibiotic use in animal feed at factory farms fosters the development of "superbugs" that are resistant to antibiotics. Salmonella, E. Coli and Campylobacter - bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses - are showing more resistance to antibiotic treatment.

Because of crowded conditions and the pressure to produce animals quickly, factory owners routinely add antibiotics to animal feed. Animals grow as quickly and to the same size on less feed - saving the factory money.

The drugs also reduce illness in animals, which are prone to infection by stress from overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. "The Sierra Club is not opposed to using antibiotics to treat sick animals," stressed Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club's Environmental Quality Program, "though the animal factory industry claims we are."

A New England Journal of Medicine article reported a study of 200 meat samples in the Washington, D.C., area that found salmonella in 20 percent of the samples. Of the bacteria strains, 84 percent were resistant to at least one antibiotic, 53 percent were resistant to at least three. And 16 percent were resistant to ceftriaxone, "the drug of choice for treating salmonellosis in children."

The Club has targeted Bayer Corp., which supplies Baytril to poultry producers. A 1999 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that increased use of Baytril in poultry production transferred resistant bacteria, campylobacter, to humans, causing serious harm. Bayer insists that the bacteria could have come from anywhere and that there is no proof that the use of Baytril in poultry is responsible.

"In 1995, the FDA approved two new antibiotics for poultry - fluroquinolones - despite the Center for Disease Control's opposition," said Hopkins. "Since '95, studies have found more evidence that use of these drugs is contributing to resistant bacteria. The FDA requested that the companies voluntarily take them off the market. Abbott Labs did, but Bayer hasn't."

Pressure from the public, not just the FDA, may help. As part of her education campaign about CAFO-produced meat, Krebsbach proposed to the Lincoln School Board that Nebraska's public schools purchase their school lunchmeat from local family farms. This spring, around Earth Day, Nebraska volunteers plan to mobilize citizens to send postcards to the school board urging them to contract with local farmers who produce antibiotic-free meat, thereby avoiding the CAFOs' health and environmental risks.

"It's a widespread fallacy that small farms can't provide enough meat for the school lunch system at a competitive price," said Krebsbach. "They can and the impact locally would be a huge benefit. If a farmer produces 500 head a year and has a stable and steady market for those cows, he or she can stay on the family farm. And our kids and families eat healthier meats."

In Alabama, organizer Peggie Griffin is also pushing antibiotic, free-range poultry and meat by putting the pressure on grocers. She and Alabama Chapter volunteers will be urging citizens to sign postcards asking their grocery stores to buy pasture-grown meat, free from antibiotics and hormones, and to buy produce grown on Alabama family farms.

"It's a two-fold effect," said Griffin. "When the consumer asks for it, and then the grocery stores ask for it, we are encouraging more farmers to produce this kind of food."


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