Why Does the Meat Industry Routinely Feed Animals Antibiotics?

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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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Chicken Salmonella Outbreaks Show Food Safety Systems Failure

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Salmonella causes more hospitalizations and more deaths than any other foodborne illness, and it's been on the rise. Salmonella causes a million cases of food poisoning every year in the U.S., and over the last decade or so the number of cases has increased by 44%, particularly among children and the elderly. And chicken is the number one cause of Salmonella poisoning.

Starting in Spring 2012, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) documented more than 600 individuals infected across 29 states with a particularly virulent strain of Salmonella (one in three were hospitalized). Investigations pointed to Foster Farms--the sixth largest chicken producer in the US--as the most likely source of the outbreak. The CDC warned people, but nothing was done. Foster Farms apparently continued to pump out contaminated meat for 17 months.

Though there's only been a few hundred cases confirmed, for every confirmed case the CDC estimates 38 cases slip through the cracks. So Foster Farms chicken may have infected and sickened more than 15,000 people.

When USDA inspectors went to investigate, they found 25% of the chicken they sampled was contaminated with the outbreak strain of Salmonella, presumed to be because of all the fecal matter they found on the carcasses.

In their February 2014 issue, Consumer Reports published a study on the high cost of cheap chicken, finding 97% of retail chicken breast off store shelves was contaminated with bacteria that can make people sick. 38% of the salmonella they found was resistant to multiple antibiotics (considered a serious public health threat by the CDC). Consumer Reports suggested the cramped conditions on factory chicken farms may play a role, and indeed new research shows the stress of overcrowding can increase Salmonella invasion.

The Pew Commission released a special report on the Foster Farms outbreaks, concluding that the outbreaks bring into sharp focus the ineffectiveness of USDA's approach to minimizing Salmonella contamination in poultry products. The agency's response "was inadequate to protect public health," and to this day thousands of people are getting sick with this preventable foodborne illnesses. One of the Pew Commission's recommendations is to close facilities that are failing to produce safe food and keep them closed until their products stop sending people to the hospital.

What did Foster Farms have to say for itself? They said that their chicken was "safe to eat," that there's "no recall in effect," and that it is "Grade A wholesome." In the same breath, though, they say Salmonella on chicken happens all the time. Their chicken is "Grade A wholesome," but might kill us if we don't handle it right. (See Foster Farms Responds to Chicken Salmonella Outbreak).

As outspoken food safety advocate Bill Marler put it, the poultry industry's reaction to the presence of fecal contamination on chicken is that... sh*t happens.

Salmonella contamination is also a problem in the U.S. egg supply, sickening more than 100,000 people every year. See my video Total Recall.

Other pathogens in meat include Yersinia enterocolitica in pork (Yersinia in Pork), Staphylococcus (U.S. Meat Supply Flying at Half Staph), MRSA (MRSA in U.S. Retail Meat), Hepatitis E (Hepatitis E Virus in Pork), bladder-infecting E coli (Avoiding Chicken To Avoid Bladder Infections), Clostridium difficile (Toxic Megacolon Superbug), and Campylobacter, the most common bacterial chicken pathogen (Poultry and Paralysis).

Poultry appears to cause the most outbreaks, but is all chicken to blame equally? See my video Superbugs in Conventional vs. Organic Chicken.

How was it legal for Foster Farms to continue to ship our meat known to be contaminated with a dangerous pathogen? See my videos Why is selling Salmonella tainted chicken still legal? and Chicken Salmonella Thanks to Meat Industry Lawsuit.

-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: zoomar / Flickr

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