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Overuse of Antibiotics in Livestock Leads to Drug-Resistant Infections in Humans, Scientists Argue

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Yesterday I wrote about the recent recall of 248,000 pounds of E. coli contaminated beef that is potentially linked to serious illness in six states. In the past, bacterial infections such as E. coli, weren’t as threatening to average, healthy people. Instead, the very young or the very old were the two groups of highest concern for E. coli-related complications or deaths. Specifically, E. coli wasn’t as much of a threat as it is now because it could be treated with antibiotics. But now, according to scientists, the overuse of antibiotics in meat products is contributing to the spread of powerful infections that are resistant to antibiotic treatment.

The World Health Organization has urged farmers to stop using antibiotics in farm animals meant for slaughter. Specifically, much of the meat we consume on a daily basis is infused with antibiotics and although the WHO warns that the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals is becoming a serious threat to human health, some farm groups and pharmaceutical companies refuse to change the practice. Instead, they argue that injecting farm animals with antibiotics keeps the livestock healthy and also helps to keep meat costs low. In fact, 8% of farmers inject their livestock with antibiotics to treat lung, skin or blood infections, But another 13% inject already healthy animals with antibiotics because it helps them grow faster, which cuts down on feed costs. However, the Centers for Disease Control, The Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are calling these drug-resistant diseases stemming from the overuse of antibiotics in livestock a "serious emerging concern" that must be addressed if we hope to avoid moving into a "post antibiotic era".

Overall, scientists argue that the overuse of antibiotics in livestock helps the animals to develop germs that are resistant to antibiotics. Humans can then become infected with these "super bugs" by eating meat produced from these livestock. Similarly, dust with the germs in it can blow into neighboring communities or run off into lakes or rivers during heavy storms. Indeed, the CDC reports that 20% of people contaminated with salmonella have a drug-resistant strain. However, most pharmaceutical companies and agribusiness companies aren’t changing their minds: pharmaceutical companies have spent $135 million on lobbying this year alone and agribusiness companies have spent an additional $70 million. Nevertheless, Representative Loise M. Slaughter from New York introduced a bill that would regulate antibiotic use in livestock–that is, allowing farmers to only use antibiotics if an animal is legitimately sick.

Despite the response from pharmaceutical and agribusiness companies, there is one farmer that is already stopped giving his animals antibiotics after learning a painful lesson himself. Russ Kremer suffered a serious strep infection after a wild boar gored him in his knee with a razor-sharp tusk. Thinking nothing of it, Kremer ignored the wound and kept working. Eventually, the strep infection set in so severely that it threatened Kremer’s life, but not even two months of antibiotics could rid him of the infection. The answer–Kremer’s wild boar had been on low doses of penicillin and developed a strain of strep that was resistant to antibiotics. Kremer didn’t need Slaughter’s bill to pass before he stopped feeding his livestock antibiotics, his infected leg was enough of a warning.