October 24, 2018
Why agribusiness has to give up livestock antibiotics
Everywhere from America to China, human disease outbreaks caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria have been traced back to integrated farming operations using AGPs. Why the way we grow meat has to CHANGE.
By ERIC J. BROOKS
An eFeedLink Hot Topic
Adults are a lot like children in some ways, but not in others. Like children, grown ups frequently require corrections to their behavior. Unfortunately, whereas most children dutifully accept corrections to their behavior, adults can become hostile and defensive, particularly when billions of dollars are involved. Below, we explain why antibiotics growth promoters (AGPs) will be missed, but also why they must give way to natural, sustainable means of animal health optimization.
In many parts of the agribusiness industry, apologists continue to deny fifty years of mounting scientific evidence that antibiotic growth promoters (AGPs) harm human health. In the same week this report was being prepared, someone else wrote an article titled, "Only few antibiotic resistance caused by animal meat." This particular article, like many others, claims that very few antibiotics used in human medicine are used as AGPs, but omits three important points.
First, genes that resist antimicrobials used in livestock frequently also confer antibiotic resistance to chemically related antibiotics used in humans. For example, when bacteria develop resistance to ceftiofur (which is only used in dairy cattle), they frequently also become resistant to ceftriaxone, a chemically similar antibiotic that is used to cure pneumonia, meningitis and salmonella infections.
Paul Fey, a microbiology professor at the University of Nebraska states that, "There is a very clear link between ceftiofur use and ceftriaxone resistance," adding that, "We know that ceftiofur-resistant salmonella [bacteria] are clearly ceftriaxone-resistant."
According to a study published in the American Journal of Veterinary Research, when cattle are given one dose of ceftiofur, 40% of their surviving E. coli bacteria become resistance to within six days. Thereafter, resistant E. Coli bacteria continued to account for over 20% of the total population for two weeks. They may then enter the human food chain via dairy products or beef, and could possibly result in people not responding to treatment for salmonella, meningitis or respiratory infections.
Second, bacteria have been found to transfer their genes for antibiotic resistance to other bacterial species, thereby facilitating the spread of such lethal infections that have their origins in AGP-laced livestock guts into species which are pathogenic to humans.
Third, antibiotic resistant bacteria from livestock do more than use food or vegetable crops (where manure is applied) to enter the human health chain. Apparently, even the wind can carry them into your home: In a USDA-funded study, Philip N. Smith an environmental toxicologist at Texas Tech University tried to determine if steroid supplements given to cattle become airborne. Instead he discovered something else: Antibiotic resistant bacteria from dry cattle feces become airborne, travelling dozens of kilometres from their place of origin.
According to Smith, "The tetracycline resistance [in bacteria] was 400,000% more prevalent downwind [from the cattle feedlot] than upwind. At some downwind locations, the tetracycline resistance was in 100% of the [bacteria] samples." Bob Martin, director of John Hopkins University's Food System Policy Program called Smith's findings, "alarming", adding that, "I am afraid this might be a wildfire situation."
But we really don't need an ill-wind to become victims of AGPs used in livestock. According to America's Centre for Disease Control (CDC), out of population of 320 million people, 2 million Americans come down with antibiotic resistant infections every year. At least 430,000 of these people are known to have acquired their illness from antibiotic resistant bacteria found in their food. Over an 80-year lifetime, that implies that approximately 35 million Americans or over 10% of the US population will at some point, get food poisoning that could be traced back to antibiotic-laden livestock intestines.
The CDC also states that over 23,000 Americans die from antibiotic resistant bacteria annually. 90,000 are infected annually with methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). With antibiotic resistance that has been traced back to AGP use in swine, MRSA results in 20,000 deaths in the US annually, with a proportion of other cases also requiring the amputation of limbs.
Quite a large number of untreatable US hospital infections are also traced to bacteria that gained their immunity to antibiotics at livestock farms. A study published in Britain's Lancet determined that 39% of post-surgery infections and 57% of post-chemotherapy infections are caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria.
In addition, several vegetable food poisoning outbreaks that occurred from the mid-1990s through the mid-2010s featured antibiotic resistant bacteria that had been apparently transferred to crops via the application of livestock manure to farm fields. Whether acquired directly through food, hospitals or wind currents, infections from bacteria that gained antibiotic resistance in livestock intestines is now a common occurrence.
For example, a 2013 to 2014 US Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak that sickened 634 persons and resulted in the hospitalization of over 200 people in 27 states was traced back to the California poultry farming operations of Foster Farms. At Foster Farms, CDC Researchers found that two-thirds of the bacteria were resistant to at least one antibiotic -and over half of the bacterial population was resistant to three or more different antibiotic classes.
The CDC investigation concluded that, "Salmonella Heidelberg strains linked to Foster products proved resistant to a variety of antibiotics…Some of those drugs belonged to the same classes as penicillin and chlortetracycline." -which are of course, widely used to treat human infections.
A Reuters investigation which reported this incident ("Farmaceuticals: The drugs fed to farm animals and the risks posed to humans.", Brian Grow, P.J. Huffstutter and Michael Erman, 15 Sept 2014) noted the following: "When Reuters asked to see Foster Farms' feed from that period tickets [which would reveal if any antibiotics were being used as AGPs] the company didn't respond to that request." This implies that at the very least, some US integrators are disregarding FDA guidelines, which urged them to stop using medically important antibiotics as AGPs.
What is more damning is Reuters noting that, "During the recent Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak, inspectors for the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service cited Foster Farms more than 480 times for not complying with food safety standards." According to the report, "Raw chicken headed for chilling tanks was smeared with feces [which contain salmonella bacteria]. At one plant, workers entered a packaging area wearing gloves that had not been properly cleaned."
Such incidents are not unique to this integrator, or even to US agribusiness -but they provide us one of the most powerful reasons for banning AGPs: Unscrupulous integrators use antibiotics to transform grossly unsanitary animal raising conditions and dirty meat processing facilities into cost-savings.
Antibiotic-sustained overcrowding of animals and dirty farm conditions are as dangerous to human health as they are grotesque to look at: According to the CDC, MRSA is easily transmitted when factors it calls "the 5 C's" are present: Crowded conditions, frequent skin-to-skin contact among livestock, compromised skin (cuts or abrasions), contamination or lack of cleanliness: To all this, one only need add antibiotics and some humans.
Up to this point, we have drawn on the evidence for AGP-driven antibiotic resistance and questionable, antibiotic-driven farm neglect cases in the United States. In truth, many countries feature agribusiness industries with far less stringent controls on antibiotic usage than those found in America.
Thus, while a far higher number of people are sickened, killed or maimed by antibiotic resistant bacteria in other countries, they are not included in the above statistics. For example, a May 2016 report by London-based Wellcome Trust determined that by 2050, China could suffer over 1 million premature human deaths from bacteria that are becoming antibiotic resistant in livestock farms –except that China did not even have to wait 34 years for the consequences of AGP overuse to arrive.
Britain's Lancet recently published a study on this outbreak ("Emergence of plasmid resistance mechanism MCR-1 in animals and human beings in China: A microbiological and molecular biological study", 18 November 2015). According to the Lancet article, Colistin-resistant E. Coli bacteria was found in 15% of 523 raw pork samples and 21% of 880 hogs tested across five Chinese provinces. With one of the few antibiotics that had not shown any evidence of bacterial resistance falling to AGP overuse in Chinese livestock, some commentators proclaimed this could be the beginning of a "post-antibiotic" medical era.
But that was not the end of the story: By May of this year, antibiotic resistant bacteria and two Colistin resistant genes had been found in the intestines of American hogs. It is only a matter of time before this infection causing bacteria which gained antibiotic resistance in Chinese hogs infects people, meat, hospitals and animals in every corner of the world.
Nor should western integrators pretend that such practices are only found in backward countries: Reuters' investigation into the practices of five US integrators found that, "In every instance of antibiotic use identified by Reuters, doses were at the low [AGP] levels that scientists say are especially conducive to the growth of so-called 'superbugs'; bacteria that gain resistance to conventional medicines used to treat people. Some of the antibiotics belong to categories considered medically important to humans."
10% of the feed tickets Reuters randomly sampled from these five US integrators contained antibiotics used to treat immunity to human illnesses in low level AGP concentrations known to accelerate bacterial resistance -and undermine the treatment of human infections.
Documented evidence showed that three of the five integrators Reuters investigated were using antibiotics used to treat human illnesses as AGPs. Clearly, 'voluntary' US FDA guidelines against using human therapy antibiotics as AGPs were in many cases being ignored.
When presented with the findings of Reuters' investigation, Donald Kennedy, a former US FDA commissioner and current president emeritus of Stanford University called them "astonishing." Kennedy noted that antibiotics at the low doses used in AGP therapy, pathogens survive, develop immunity and create, "A systematic source of antibiotic resistance", adding that, "This could be an even larger piece of the antibiotic-resistance problem than I had thought."
While such practices have been thoroughly documented in America, it is in fast growing, emerging markets that the contradictions between AGPs, human health, animal performance and ethical issues are most acute. For example, following in China's footsteps, recent industry reports cite how high antibiotic levels continue to be found everywhere from Indian shrimp (resulting in its rejection by US, EU and Japanese customs) to Myanmar's broiler meat (please see this month's article on Myanmar's feed sector).
In the Myanmar's case, overuse of antibiotics to mitigate unsanitary farm conditions is done in the worst way possible: Livestock and farmed seafood are given antibiotics right up to the day of their slaughter. This guarantees that Myanmar's people receive exceptionally high doses of antibiotic residues, and with them, antibiotic resistant pathogens.
Hence, while we now find evidence of human infections that resist treatment in places like China where antibiotics are used to make overcrowding possible, virulent bacterial resistance first occurred in developing nations like America, where the dosages and concentrations used were markedly lower. This implies that unless livestock AGPs are phased out, many more people are destined to die or be maimed by antibiotic resistant bacteria in developing countries than in the west itself.
This is not to say that transcending the 20th century AGP-based agribusiness paradigm will be easy. One of the biggest problems is that AGPs did more than merely boost livestock productivity. They also covered up farm management shortcomings. Not all these shortcomings were due to unethical practices such as overcrowding or unsanitary conditions.
For example, at Novus International's 25th anniversary celebration in St. Charles, Missouri in mid-June, Mercedes Vazquez-Anon, Novus's senior director of animal nutrition and facilities stated that, "Antibiotics were helping us overcome some of the issues that we had, for example, in ingredient quality. It allows us to use ingredients where maybe the digestibility needed to be improved - the way the antibiotic was working was by hiding that problem." He concluded that, "By removing antibiotics we have to be more precise and do things better."
In truth, the problem is not with AGPs but human nature, which seeks to maximize returns even when it results in great harm. And there is a large, quantifiable price to the harm done by AGPs: The WHO estimates that in America alone, US$22 to US$34 billion annually is spent on treating antibiotic resistant infections that can be traced back to AGP use in livestock: It is almost as if America's consumers and health insurance providers are paying livestock a huge subsidy to keep the country's beef, chicken and pork as cheap as possible –but at what price?
America's discouraging experience with 'voluntary' FDA antibiotic guidelines implies that more stringent, EU-style restrictions on their use are required -and political pressure is mounting: Louise Slaughter, the US Congressional representative for New York (who is also a certified microbiologist) wrote in an open letter to the US FDA commissioner: "The current strategy of voluntary guidance regarding 'judicious use' of antibiotics is doomed to fail, and it does not reflect the extreme urgency of this issue." Slaughter's activism reflects that AGPs have become public knowledge and a mainstream political topic.
In such a situation, denying the harm AGPs do or threatening those who research the effects of AGPs are losing strategies. -And with regards to the latter, it appears that some integrators have a lot to learn: Reuters reported that, "Pilgrim's Pride said it would take legal action against Reuters unless the news agency gave the company access to Pilgrim's feed tickets that reporters had reviewed."
Whether Pilgrims Pride is justified in threatening legal action against Reuters is not the issue: Given the mounting scientific evidence against AGPs and a legitimate investigation by a reputable news agency, how do Pilgrims Pride's legal threats against Reuters look to the general public? They create a public relations disaster that makes Pilgrims Pride look guilty even if it is innocent in all matters.
Smart livestock and aquaculture farms will not wait for the day AGPs are banned. They will proactively remove them from their livestock supply chain and use marketing strategy to publicize the benefits of their far-sightedness.
Some changes required by the ascending natural supplement paradigm will be genuinely new farm management methods. Others will merely be a return to the cleaner, more sanitary conditions that existed before antibiotics made cleanliness or uncrowded conditions uneccesary. One thing is for sure: The sooner integrator make livestock farming sustainable, the better it will be; for both their marketing image, and for their bottom lines too.
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