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You Want Superbugs With That?

(Page 2 of 2)

In 2004, Dutch doctors discovered a strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in a six-month-old baby. Often fatal, MRSA is the original "superbug" because it can survive treatment by the most powerful antibiotics in modern medicine’s arsenal. At first, the doctors were puzzled. MRSA was primarily known as a hospital-acquired infection. But the child, who carried the germs but never became sick, as is often the case with the asymptomatic carriers of bacteria, had never been in a hospital. Her parents were pig farmers, and subsequent investigations showed that the MRSA had been passed from the pigs to the parents and on to the baby. (Most bacteria are non-infectious, although they may carry resistance genes. The problem is that they can pass their resistance traits to infectious bacteria.)

Three years later, J. Scott Weese, a professor at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph near Toronto, found an identical strain of MRSA in Canadian pigs and their owners. The superbug had somehow leapt over the Atlantic Ocean. Further research by Weese revealed that the swapping of resistant bacteria between animals and humans can be a two-way street. Not only were the farmers affected by MRSA that had originated in pigs, but the pigs carried MRSA that until then had only been found in humans.

For a year or so, American agribusiness continued to claim that MRSA was a problem that couldn’t happen here -- a myth they were able to perpetrate because no government agency was routinely testing hogs for MRSA. But during the summer of 2008, Tara Smith, a microbiologist at the University of Iowa and the deputy director of the university’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, found that seven out of ten pigs she and her students tested on farms in Illinois and Iowa carried MRSA.

A graduate student working with Smith recently uncovered a strain of S. aureus associated with hogs and the people who tend them in a day care worker who had never been near a hog farm. Fortunately, that particular strain was not antibiotic resistant. But the discovery showed that humans do not have to work with infected animals to pick up the bacteria they carry. "Whether the pig bacterium was passed on via another human or via contaminated food products, we can’t tell right now," Smith said in an email.

Making the Case

In fact, there are any number of ways antibiotic resistant bacteria can spread from farm to fork. A recently published study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that 47 percent of the beef, chicken, pork, and turkey sampled from grocery stores in five U.S. cities carried drug-resistant S. aureus. Superbugs are literally blowing in the wind. According to a 2006 report in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, multi-drug resistant bacteria were found in the air downwind of a confined hog operation. Nearly 90 percent of the E. coli in liquid manure pits associated with pig farms are resistant to drugs, according to Kellogg Schwab, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Water and Health. Manure ponds frequently burst their banks and contaminate nearby streams, rivers, and wells.

Pharmaceutical companies dispute the assertion that treating animals with low-dose antibiotics is dangerous to humans. "A lot of people want to talk about antibiotic resistance as if it is a big amorphous issue," said Ron Phillips of the Animal Health Institute, in an interview. "It is, in fact, a series of discrete issues where you have to look at specific bug/drug combinations and figure out what are the potential pathways for antibiotic-resistant material to transfer from animals to humans. Studies have been done, and have come to the conclusion that there is a vanishingly small level of risk."

Smith of the University of Iowa says that the specific studies that the industry suggests are necessary simply cannot be done—it would be the equivalent of having to have an eyewitness to prosecute any crime. "But we have DNA from the crime scene that matches that of the suspect. At some point you have to accept that he is responsible. The bulk of evidence is overwhelming."

One area where solid scientific evidence is lacking, astonishingly, is on whether changing the industry-wide practice of giving low doses of antibiotics to livestock would actually make that much of a difference. The experience of farmers in the European Union, where dosing animals with sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics was banned in 1998, suggests otherwise. Denmark is the world’s largest pork exporting country, and most of its hogs are raised in large confined operations much like those used by the U.S. pork industry. In that country, the overall use of antibiotics fell by 37 percent between 1994 and 2009, according to a study by Denmark’s National Food Institute. Correspondingly, levels of resistant bacteria in animals and people plummeted, but production levels of meat either stayed the same or increased: The average daily weight gain per pig was actually higher in 2008 than in 1992 when antibiotics were routinely administered.

It’s easy to understand why drug companies react so forcefully to any attempts to cut back on sub-therapeutic antibiotic use -- FDA figures show that 60 percent of the antimicrobial drugs they sell are fed to farm animals to promote growth, an enormous chunk of their business -- but given the success of farmers in Europe who’ve stopped using antibiotics to promote growth, why is the farm lobby so vehemently against change? Would it spell the end of the huge CAFOs upon which American agribusiness has come to depend? Steven Roach, the public health program director for the Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the FDA, has a straightforward answer to that question: No, CAFOs would not go away. European pig farms are as large as those in the U.S., according to Roach. Some of the E.U.’s chicken operations are even larger than those in this country. (And if American farmers feel uncomfortable with examples from foreign countries, he suggests that they look at Tyson, one of the United States’ largest poultry producers, which had no problems raising chickens without antibiotics in ways that the suit aims to stop.)

"There are two parts of production where there are small economic benefits to using low-dose antibiotics," Roach said in an interview. "Particularly on young pigs. The challenge for the beef cattle industry is that when you feed a high-corn diet, cattle have some heath problems, and one way they manage that is using the antibiotics in the feed. But even so, some producers are raising them without antibiotics in feedlots now." Roach said that European farmers have gotten around these problem areas by weaning piglets later. Barns are kept cleaner for all animals. And altering diets allows CAFOs to raise cattle without antibiotics. Of course, says Roach, some farmers simply won’t want to change. He believes they are afraid that if they allow outside forces to impose even small changes, then other changes are bound to come.

After 35 years on the frontlines in the battle to keep antibiotics effective, though, Levy believes there’s cause for optimism. "The mood is now 180 degrees better than it was for getting rid of this practice," he said. "There are more and more scientists and lay people who are urgently asking for an end to this use of antibiotics."

It helps that one of those "science people" is also a congresswoman. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat who represents upstate New York, was a microbiologist before going into politics. In 2009, she introduced a bill called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which calls for the FDA to withdraw its approval of the practice within two years unless there is reasonable certainty that the low-dose antibiotics cause no harm to human health. "We are witnessing a looming public health crisis that is moving from farms to grocery stores to dinner tables around the country," she said in an email. "As the only microbiologist in Congress, I feel it’s my duty to bring public attention to this."

Although Slaughter’s bill has yet to pass, it had 127 co-sponsors in the last Congressional session, more than double its support in the previous Congress. It looks as though even more legislators will sign on this time, and many are hopeful that the combined forces of looming legislation and an active lawsuit will finally lead the FDA to act. "If we don’t address it," Slaughter continued, "we risk setting ourselves back to the time before antibiotics, when even common infections could kill a person. That’s not any kind of world I want my children and their children to inherit."

image of Barry Estabrook
Barry Estabrook is a two-time winner of the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards for food writing. His first, for a Gourmet feature about labor abuses in Florida’s tomato fields, led to his acclaimed book Tomatoland about how industrial agricu... READ MORE >
As usual, your writing is fantastic. This is a terrific (and terrifying) article that I will be re-reading, and passing along to everyone I know. Thank you so much for your work.
You have the wrong cow in the photo. Dairy cows are not routinely fed antibiotics.
That's a pig, actually... But if you've seen a cow used to illustrate this story elsewhere, which is what I'm guessing you're referring to, you'll need to let the editors of that site know. Several of our partner news organizations have republished or excerpted this story (which we appreciate!), but we don't have any control over the images they use. Thanks.
Nasty stuff. I raise chickens at home for eggs. And I had to look for medicine to treat my small flock, and I discovered that common antibiotics sold in ranch and farm supplies can be used on poultry, but not poultry meant for consumption. No word on if or how long this would effect their eggs. As in no information. My impression was that in some cases [I hope only some] farmers are operating in the dark about the long term or cascade effects of these medications on food and those who consume that food. Scary thoughts! What will need to happen is for production to taper off to more realistic numbers so we aren't cramming so many living, breeding, defecating and urinating animals into small spaces that quickly become serious disease vectors. This will drive the cost of meat way up. But I don't see any other way. Hobby farmers can take the pressure off a little for local supply and demand. One serious question we have asked ourselves is how much meat do we really need to consume? We have since that time reduced our meat consumption considerably. It is better for the environment in so many ways, and apparently it is better for our collective health as well. I feel better about paying more for less meat that is not marinating in tetracycline and similar medications. I don't want MRSA or any related conditions.