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The Drugging of America's Food

  • Common and widespread use of antibiotics and other drugs in our nation's food supply is wreaking havoc with our immune systems.
By Tom Valentine

Antibiotics were the "wonder drugs" that launched the power of modern medicine following World War I and continuing through World War II. Today those "wonders" may be turning into a terrible health catastrophe as greed and abuse provoke a serious "counter-revolution" by pathogenic bacteria.

Today virtually every public health institution is wary that antimicrobial resistance is a problem of "growing urgency." Recently the Union of Concerned Scientists released a study showing that while the overuse and abuse of antibiotics by medical doctors is a key factor in this resistance, the use of antimicrobials in agriculture may play an even more significant role.


The Concerned Scientists report said: "Tetracycline, penicillin, erythromycin and other antimicrobials that are important in human use are used extensively in the absence of disease for nontherapeutic purposes in today's livestock production. Cattle, swine and poultry are routinely given antimicrobials throughout much of their lives..."

"We estimate that every year livestock producers in the United States use 24.6 million pounds of antimicrobials for non therapeutic purposes. these estimates are the first available to the public based on a clear methodology. We have been careful in making these estimates, always choosing conservative assumptions. We hope that any critics of this study who claim the estimates are incorrect will provide the documented data needed to refine them."

Why use antibiotics for a "non therapeutic" purpose in the first place? Answer, because it is a cheap way to get the animals "fatted for market" earlier than normal. It is also pertinent to note that getting solid facts and figures in this matter from the pharmaceutical and animal livestock industries is difficult, to put it mildly. Additionally, you should know that "organically" produced meats and poultry cannot, by original definition, use antibiotics or hormones in animals.

The term "nontherapeutic use" is especially interesting. The huge 24.6 million pound figure estimated by the study does not include al the antibiotics given to animals for therapeutic purposes.

The study said: "The quantities of antimicrobials used in the absence of disease for nontherapeutic purposes in livestock dwarf the amount of antimicrobials used in human medicine. Our estimates of 24.6 million pounds in animal agriculture and 3 million pounds in human medicine suggests that 8 times more antimicrobials are used for nontherapeutic purposes in the three major livestock sectors that in human medicine."

The report added: "... By contrast, industry's estimates suggest that two pounds of antimicrobials are used in treating human disease for every pound used in livestock."

Curiously, estimates from industry claim that twice as much is used for human therapy than is used by the livestock industry. Apparently someone, somewhere is lying to cover up this abuse, which has contributed greatly to the dangerous resistance problem. For example, the Animal Health Institute recently released figures that a total of 17.8 million pounds of antibiotics is used each year for therapeutic and nontherapeutic uses in "all animals" and not just swine, cattle or poultry.

The Concerned Scientists estimate of 24.6 million pounds is only that which is used "nontherapeutically' in poultry (10.5 million pounds); swine(10.3 million pounds) and cattle (3.7 million pounds). "The tonnage would be even higher if antimicrobials used therapeutically for animals were included."

"Livestock use accounts for the lion's share of the total quantity of antimicrobials used in the United States. Our ballpark estimates suggest that nontherapeutic livestock use accounts for 70 percent of total antimicrobial use. then all agricultural uses are considered, the share could be as high as 84 percent. This estimate is far higher than the 40 percent figure commonly given in the literature for agricultural share of antimicrobial use."

What we obviously have here is a very lucrative antimicrobial business that is threatened by developing knowledge of microbial resistance factors and apparent danger to human health. The health problem has been known by the "health community" since the 1970s when "intransigent, antibiotic-resistant infections" were discovered "circulating in hospitals." such resistant microbial infections now plague hospitals and the food supply.

What has taken so long for this problem to be recognized?

The January-February 2001 issue of FDA Consumer magazine featured a story headlined: "Antibiotic Resistance -- From Down on the Chicken Farm." This story does not deal with the "nontherapeutic" uses of antibiotics, but rather the problems with the therapeutic use.

The Center for Veterinary Medicine was forced to take action last fall. It "proposed" that permission for use of Baytril (enrogloxicin) made by Bayer be withdrawn for use in chickens and turkeys. Abbott Laboratories voluntarily withdrew its product SaraFlox, which is also in the fluoroquinonlone family of antibiotics - an antibiotic commonly used to treat humans.

Hearings are now underway as Bayer wishes to present evidence that will allow keeping Baytril on the market.

The Poultry industry uses this family of antibiotics to control Escheria coli a common organism in the human gut that is not normally pathogenic to humans, but now, incidently, has a "mutated, resistant strain" that can be deadly.

The FDA Consumer said: "... the size of flocks precludes testing and treating individual chickens, so when a veterinarian diagnoses an infected bird, the farmers treat the whole flock by adding the drug to its drinking water. While the drug may cure the E. coli bacteria in the poultry, another kind of bacteria - campylobacter -- may build up resistance to these drugs, and that is the root of the problem."

This means that people consuming commercial chicken -- an exceptionally popular food -- are at risk for contacting fluoroquinolone-resistant campylobacter.

Guess what? Campylobacter is the most common bacterial cause of diarrheal illness in the United States today. The Centers for Disease Control say this bug affects more than 2 million people every year. The campylobacter infections can be deadly to people with weakened immune systems -- making it the biggest food poisoning killer among such germs in the United States.

The damage does not stop here, the FDA report claimed: "Cross-resistance occurs throughout this class of drugs, so resistance to one fluoroquinolone can compromise the effectiveness of all fluoroquinolone drugs," according to Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine.

What is not being said in the FDA Consumer, but is heavily implied by the Concerned Scientists' study, is that dripping antibiotics in the water systems on poultry farms is done routinely, and not necessarily therapeutically -- obviously compounding the problem.

Meanwhile, government regulators are moving the the typical snail's pace with lobbyists from industry hawking every move. The Concerned Scientists said their report was not "meant to end the debate about usage, but to start it. "They called for a series of steps by the federal government.