As if we didn’t have enough to worry about, now comes the alarming news that killer bugs have made the leap from hospitals and nursing homes to playgrounds and locker rooms. According to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus bacterium, now kills more Americans than AIDS. The rise in antibiotic-resistant superbugs like MRSA can largely be attributed to the overuse of antibiotics—in humans and animals.
Approximately 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. aren’t given to human patients—they are fed to farmed animals. The filthy, crowded conditions on factory farms are breeding grounds for disease. Billions of chickens, turkeys, pigs and other animals killed for food each year in this country live mired in their own waste. The powerful, burning stench of ammonia-laden urine commonly leads to respiratory diseases, bacterial infections and other ailments. The conditions are so deplorable that the animals are fed a steady dose of antibiotics just to keep them alive long enough to send them to slaughter.
Anyone who eats meat, milk or eggs is also eating the antibiotics given to the animals raised for those products. Scientists from the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association and other health groups fear that the overuse of antibiotics in farmed animals is causing the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. The U.S. General Accounting Office warns, “Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been transferred from animals to humans, and many of the studies we reviewed found that this transference poses significant risks for human health.”
One USDA study showed that 66 percent of beef samples were contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and scientists at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have reported that 96 percent of the chicken flesh they tested was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant campylobacter bacteria.
Another study conducted by the CDC indicated that chicken sold in supermarkets is often tainted with potentially fatal bacteria called Enterococcus faecium. This bacterium was not even affected by Synercid, a drug commonly used to treat antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Over the years, more than 30 antibiotics have received FDA approval for use in livestock, and many of those same drugs are used to treat human illnesses. So when you get sick, the antibiotics you’re prescribed may not work, either because you’ve built up a tolerance for the drug by consuming it in your chicken or fish dinner or because the bacteria have mutated and figured out how to beat the drug.
Says Dr. Neil Fishman of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, “We are starting to see more and more bugs for which we don’t have antibiotics.”
The spread of diseases from animals to humans is not a new problem: The factory farms where animals are warehoused in deplorable conditions have given rise to bird flu, mad cow disease, SARS and other animalborne diseases that threaten human health. Many harmful organisms, including salmonella, campylobacter, listeria and E. coli, have also spread from animals to people.
Now we can add MRSA to the list, as experts believe that it is widespread among farmed animals. A recent Belgian survey showed that MRSA has been found in 68 percent of the pig farms in that country. In 37 percent of the cases, the farmer and the farmer’s family carried pig MRSA—a variant of human MRSA.
A bill pending congressional approval would end the routine use of antibiotics in farmed animals who are not sick. This is a good first step, but there is a much more comprehensive solution: Stop raising animals for food in the first place. The fewer animals we raise, the fewer superbugs there will be to battle. And since disease-causing bacteria are not the only health risk posed by meat and other animal products (which lead to cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other serious problems), we would all be better off if we traded in our fried chicken and fish sticks for the great-tasting vegetarian alternatives available at most grocery stores and restaurants.