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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
Table of Contents
 
  COLD SWEAT:
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I (Heart) Snowshoeing
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Lay of the Land

Playing Chicken | 2020 Vision | Low Bench Marks | WWatch | The Hidden Cost of Gas | Sprawl | Bold Strokes | Updates

Playing Chicken With Disease

How industrial farming spawns drug-resistant "superbugs"

Penicillin seemed like a miracle when it was introduced in the 1940s: a drug that could cure previously devastating bacterial diseases such as pneumonia, syphilis, and meningitis. Some 60 years later, antibiotics are so commonplace we take them for granted.

But their power is dwindling. The widespread use of antibiotics on livestock–not to cure illness, but to stimulate growth and prevent disease–is creating drug-resistant "superbugs" that are difficult to kill. "Any time you expose bacteria to antibiotics, you’re creating survival-of-the-fittest pressure," says Karen Florini, a senior attorney at Environmental Defense. "The ones that are susceptible die; the ones that aren’t survive to breed rapidly."

Of the 35 million pounds of antibiotics administered each year in the United States, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that more than 70 percent go to livestock. Many of the antibiotics used on poultry, cattle, and pigs also fight life-threatening bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli in humans. Resistant forms of these microbes can spread to people through contact with raw or undercooked meat or through contaminated produce or water. "Bacteria share genetic instructions on how to outwit antibiotics, and your stomach is their university," says Florini. "When different germs trade resistances, you could end up with an untreatable disease."

Responding to these public-health concerns, in 1998 the European Union banned the "nontherapeutic" use (including livestock growth-promotion and disease-prevention) of essential human antibiotics; U.S. activists are pressing the Food and Drug Administration to do the same. In October 2000, the agency took a small step in this direction by asking two major drug manufacturers to stop selling an animal antibiotic in the fluoroquinolone family (a group that includes famed anthrax-fighter Cipro). When these drugs were approved for animals in 1995, only 1 percent of Campylobacter, the most common cause of bacterial food poisoning, was resistant to fluoroquinolones. By 1999, that number had jumped to 17.6 percent.

Faced with the possibility of a regulatory battle, Abbott Laboratories agreed to take its drug, Saraflox, off the market, but Bayer Corporation is still fighting the FDA. The Sierra Club, as part of a new coalition called Keep Antibiotics Working, is pressuring Bayer to withdraw Baytril (enrofloxacin), its version of fluoroquinolone for animals.

Limiting the use of antibiotics on animals may not completely stop the growth of antibiotic resistance (the drugs are also overprescribed by doctors) but it’s a good place to start. The same giant livestock facilities that pollute our air and water are also the perfect breeding grounds for super-tough microbes. Since disease spreads easily in the cramped, unhygienic conditions, drugs like Baytril are routinely added to animals’ drinking water.

Industry groups argue that such measures are necessary to preserve the safety of our food supply, but that safety is imperiled by the way factory farms are run. In 1997, the World Health Organization called for a ban on nontherapeutic application of human antibiotics to livestock, saying that animals need space, clean water, and high-quality feed instead. "If they were treating these animals better, they wouldn’t need these antibiotics in the first place," says Sierra Club representative Ed Hopkins. And the drugs would be left for people to use, safely and effectively.

by Jennifer Hattam

For More Info
Exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be reduced by switching to organic meat. See "Nothing to Beef About,". Also check out the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s "Eat Well, Eat Antibiotic-Free," at www.keepantibioticsworking.com/guide. To ask Bayer to withdraw Baytril, click on the "Take Action" link at the same site.

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