Why Does the Meat Industry Routinely Feed Animals Antibiotics?


When farm animals are fed antibiotics, they can develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their guts. Manure contamination of meat can then transfer these gut bacteria to humans. These bacteria can even spread to vegetarians, since drug-resistant bacteria in the animal feces can also spread to people through crops or the environment. Exhaust fans can blow MRSA superbugs straight out into the surrounding area from pig or poultry operations. This may explain why human MRSA infections in Europe have been tied to just living in a region with industrial pig production, whether or not people have direct contact with livestock. These findings may not just be limited to Europe.

European factory farms pale in comparison to what we have here in the U.S. From an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association's Internal Medicine: "proximity to swine manure application to crop fields and livestock operations was each associated with MRSA and skin and soft-tissue infections [in people in the U.S]. These findings contribute to the growing concern about the potential public health impacts of high-density livestock production."

An article published in Lancet Infectious Diseases explains that, "achievements in modern medicine, such as surgery, the treatment of preterm babies, and cancer chemotherapy, which we today take for granted, would not be possible without access to effective treatment for bacterial infections. Within just a few years, we might be faced with dire setbacks, medically, socially, and economically, unless real and unprecedented global coordinated actions are immediately taken" to protect these wonder drugs. Therefore, the use of antibiotics just to promote the growth of farm animals to slaughter weights should be banned worldwide. Europe stopped feeding pigs and chickens tetracycline and penicillin to promote growth about 40 years ago, something the U.S. meat industry continues to do to this day.

The Pew Commission recently published a five year update on their landmark blue ribbon commission report on current agricultural practices that found "the present system of producing food animals in the United States presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health." Their number one recommendation was to ban the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, but agriculture lobbies are not going to give up the use of antibiotics without a fight (See Antibiotics: Agribusinesses' Pound of Flesh).

In December 2013, the FDA released "Guidance for Industry," their voluntary, non-binding recommendation for industry. They recommend antibiotics no longer be used to just fatten animals for slaughter, but emphasize that they are just that: toothless, non-legally enforceable suggestions. As mentioned in the Pew Commission report, "this voluntary approach has come under withering criticism from the public health and medical communities concerned about the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens."

The USDA is even considering going backwards, eliminating the requirement to even test for Staph aureus at all in the Federal School Lunch Program. They understand that "school-aged children are considered a 'sensitive population', hence, more stringent requirements, including sampling plans, may be considered to help assure safety and public confidence. However, the cost of such programs must be weighed against the cost of buying the food needed to support the program."

As one University of Iowa epidemiologist said, "although human health should take priority over farm animals, farmers will be reluctant to change until researchers can come up with safe and cost-effective practices to replace the use of antibiotics." How much are antibiotics really saving the industry? The net bottom-line benefit from the use of antibiotic feed additives may only be about $0.25 per animal, which means eliminating the risky practice of feeding antibiotics by the ton to farm animals would raise the price of meat less than a penny per pound.

For those not familiar with MRSA, please see my past videos on the topic:

For more on antibiotic use on the farm, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: AJC ajcann.wordpress.com / Flickr

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How Humans Benefit From Stressed Plants

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Plants live the ultimate sedentary lifestyle--most of us usually think of plants more as objects than as organisms. Because plants can't move, they've had to evolve a whole other way to escape threats to their well-being. Plants can "sense and respond dynamically to all sorts of stimuli: chemical concentrations in the air and soil, water, touch, motion, vibration, pathogens, predators, and, of course, light." How do they respond? Biochemically. They manufacture, from scratch, a dizzying array of compounds to deal with specific threats.

If we get too hot, we can move into the shade. If plants get too hot, they're stuck--they are the shade! As a result, "the complexity of the plant stress response humbles that of animals. Plants and their stress response have been evolving for almost a billion years." And in that time they've created a whole chemistry lab of protective substances, some of which can induce similarly protective responses in those of us who eat them.

The "best grapes in terms of health benefit often grow in relatively dry, sun-exposed, infertile soil. Similarly, drought-stressed strawberries have more antioxidants and phytonutrients. Indeed, commonly consumed foods like lettuce and fruits can be nutritionally enhanced by cold stress, light stress, water deficit, or nutrient deficit stress." Why are stressed plants often the healthiest?

Studies (such as those highlighted in my video, Appropriating Plant Defenses) suggest that plants and animals largely share the same molecular pathways in order to respond to stress, so it's conceivable that a molecule produced in plants can also be effective in people. Plants have DNA; humans have DNA. The UV rays in sunlight can damage the DNA in plants in the same way it can damage our DNA (by creating free radicals). Plants figured out how to cook up all these complex antioxidants, and instead of reinventing the wheel, animals can just expropriate those antioxidants from plants and commandeer them for the same purpose.

We get attacked by bacteria; plants get attacked by bacteria. When a particular fungus is getting muscled in on by bacteria, it creates a molecule called penicillin--provided free for us.

When plants get infected, they produce aspirin (See Aspirin Levels in Plant Foods), which can come in handy when we get infected. Plants heal wounds; we heal wounds, using similar fatty-acid signaling systems. It is "increasingly evident that plants and animals differ less than we thought in how we respond to stimuli, sharing elements of fatty acid, protein, steroidal, neurotransmitter, free radical, nitric oxide, and even plant growth hormone signaling systems." So in a sense, we're just opening up nature's drug store when we pull out the crisper in our fridge.

This whole co-evolution concept reminds me of Human Neurotransmitters In Plants and The Broccoli Receptor: Our First Line of Defense.

More on the power of plants in Power Plants.

Some of the wilder things that Phytochemicals: The Nutrition Facts Missing from the Label can do are explored in:

We evolved eating a lot of plants: Paleolithic Lessons.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 - 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Hernan Pinera / Flickr

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Superbugs on Retail Chicken

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One of the most concerning developments in medicine is the emergence of bacterial super-resistance--resistance not just to one class of drugs, like penicillin, but to multiple classes of drugs (so-called multi-drug resistance). In the 2013 Retail Meat Report, the FDA found that more than a quarter of the Salmonella contaminating retail chicken breast were resistant to not one but five or more different classes of antibiotic treatment drugs.

Throughout history there has been a continual battle between humans and pathogens. For the last half century, this battle has taken the form of bugs versus drugs. When we developed penicillin, the U.S. Surgeon General declared, "The war against infectious diseases has been won." However, the euphoria over the potential conquest of infectious diseases was short lived.

In response to our offensive, bacteria developed an enzyme that ate penicillin for breakfast. In fact, bacteria can excrete such large quantities of the enzyme that they can destroy the drug before it even comes into contact. So we developed a drug that blocks the penicillin-eating enzyme. That's why you may see two drug names on an antibiotic like Augmentin--one is the actual antibiotic (amoxicillin), and the other is a drug that blocks the enzyme the bacteria tries to use to block the antibiotic (clavulanate). But the bacteria outsmarted us again by developing a blocker blocking blocker--and so it goes back and forth. However hard we try and however clever we are, there is no question that organisms that have "been around for three billion years, and have adapted to survive under the most extreme conditions, will always overcome whatever we decide to throw at them."

So we went from first generation antibiotics, to second generation antibiotics, to third generation antibiotics. We now have bacteria that have evolved the capacity to survive our big-gun third generation cephalosporins like ceftriaxone, which is what we rely on to treat life-threatening Salmonella infections in children.

Where are these super-duper-superbugs found? According to one study profiled in my video, Superbugs in Conventional vs. Organic Chicken, "almost 90% were isolated from chicken carcasses or retail chicken meat."

But what if we only ate antibiotic-free organic chicken? In the first such study ever published, researchers compared multidrug-resistant bacteria in organic and conventional retail chicken meat. All of the conventional chicken samples were contaminated; however, the majority (84%) of organic chicken meat samples was also contaminated. So 100% versus 84%. Organic is definitely better, but odds are we could still be buying something that could make our family sick.

Where do these antibiotic resistant bacteria come from if organic producers are not using antibiotics? A possible explanation is that day-old chicks come from the hatcheries already infected with these bacteria before they arrive at the farms. Or, they could become contaminated after they leave the farm in the slaughter plant. Organic chickens and conventionally raised chickens are typically all slaughtered at the same plants, so there may be cross-contamination between carcasses. Finally, factory farms are dumping antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria-laden chicken manure out into the environment. Researchers can pick up antibiotic-resistant genes right out of the soil around factory farms. So even meat raised without antibiotics may be contaminated with multi-drug resistant bacteria.

In a cover story in which Consumer Reports urged retailers to stop selling meat produced with antibiotics, the researchers noted some store employee confusion: "An assistant store manager at one grocery store, when asked by a shopper for meats raised without antibiotics, responded, 'Wait, you mean like veggie burgers?'" On second thought maybe the employees weren't so confused after all.

I addressed this issue previously in video such as:

Isn't it illegal to sell meat contaminated with dangerous bacteria? Unfortunately no. See why in my video Salmonella in Chicken & Turkey: Deadly But Not Illegal. Reminds me of the case I wrote about in Supreme Court case: meat industry sues to keep downed animals in food supply.

-Michael Greger, M.D

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Chilanga Cement / Flickr

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When a Scraped Knee May Once Again Kill









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In a keynote address last year, the Director-General of the World Health Organization warned that we may be facing a future in which many of our miracle drugs no longer work. “A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it,” she said. “Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill.”

The Director-General’s prescription to avoid this catastrophe included a global call to “Restrict the use of antibiotics in food production to therapeutic purposes.” In other words, only use antibiotics in agriculture to treat sick animals. In the United States, meat producers feed literally millions of pounds of antibiotics to farm animals who aren’t sick just to promote growth or prevent disease in the often cramped, stressful, unhygienic conditions of industrial animal agriculture. The FDA estimates that 80% of the antimicrobial drugs sold in the U.S. every year now go to the meat industry.

The discoverer of penicillin warned us back in the ’40s that misuse could lead to resistance, but the meat industry didn’t listen and started feeding it to chickens by the ton. The Food and Drug Administration finally wised up to the threat in 1977 and proposed stopping the feeding of penicillin and tetracycline to farm animals.

That was 37 years ago. Since then, the combined political power of the factory farming and pharmaceutical industries has effectively thwarted any legislative or regulatory action. This stranglehold shows no sign of breaking. We realized this reckless practice was a public health threat decades ago, and yet what’s been done about it?

“Present [farm animal] production is concentrated in high-volume, crowded, stressful environments, made possible in part by the routine use of antibacterial [drugs] in [the] feed,” the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment wrote in 1979. “Thus the current dependency on low-level use of antibiotics to increase or maintain production, while of immediate benefit, also could be the Achilles’ heel of present production methods.”

Industrial operations use antibiotics as a crutch to compensate for the squalid conditions that now characterize much of modern agribusiness. The unnatural crowding of animals and their waste creates such a strain on the animals’ immune systems that normal body processes like growth may be impaired. That’s why a constant influx of antibiotics is thought to accelerate weight gain by reducing this infectious load. The problem is that “Each animal feeding on an antibiotic becomes a ‘factory’ for the production and subsequent dispersion of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” offering a whole new meaning to the term “factory farm” (see my 3-min video Past the Age of Miracles: Facing a Post-Antibiotic Age for details).

What else do they feed farm animals? Check out:

This issue, perhaps more than any other, lays to bare the power of moneyed interests to undermine public health. Look at the long list of endorsers of legislation to reform this practice. Sadly, though, the sway of nearly every single medical organization in the United States is no match for the combined might of Big Ag and Big Pharma.

For more on this issue, see:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Image credit: Brett Aruther Donar/ Flickr

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