How responsible are farms for antibiotic resistance?

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nottinghamvets/ Some rights reserved.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nottinghamvets/ Some rights reserved.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made big news this week with the first-ever assessment of how antibiotic-resistant germs affect humans. Their conclusion, considered to be conservative, is grim: 23,000 people die a year as a direct result of such infections.

A large chunk of the report was dedicated to all the antibiotics given to animals in the production of meat and dairy products. As the New York Times reported:

One point of contention has been the extent to which industrial-scale animal farming contributes to the problem of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. The government has estimated that more than 70 percent of antibiotics in the United States are given to animals. Companies use them to prevent sickness when animals are packed together in ways that breed infection. They also use them to make animals grow faster, though federal authorities are trying to stop that.

The report said that “much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.” It also said that about half of antibiotic use in people is inappropriate.

Many media took the report as a smoking gun that factory farms are significantly to blame. In fact, the CDC's director, Thomas Frieden, said in a media briefing that "for the whole pathway, we need to address from farm to table."

Farm Aid, the benefit mega-concert taking place in Saratoga Springs tomorrow, even weighed in with a press release, saying "the costs of factory farming are too dire to ignore. We can’t afford an industrial food system that produces cheap food, propped up by dangerous practices that make people sick."

But the report says while livestock farms are a factor, and more antibiotics are given to animals than humans, antibiotic resistance in hospitals is the gravest threat to people. Dan Charles at NPR's The Salt highlighted that point:

Where in this ranking did farm-related antibiotic resistance fall? Not at the top, certainly. According to the CDC, the most urgent threats are posed by antibiotic-resistant infections that have emerged in hospitals, as a result of heavy antibiotic use there. These include infections with Klebsiella and E.coli bacteria that are resistant to every known antibiotic, as well as drug-resistant gonorrhea.

"Right now, the most acute problem is in hospitals," said Tom Frieden, the CDC's director, in a conference call with reporters. "The most resistant organisms in hospitals are emerging in those settings because of poor anti-microbial stewardship among humans."

The Salt also points out that the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the CDC "missed an opportunity" to make a clear statement about the use of antibiotics in animal production.

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2 Comments

  1. unlike GMO – this is a genuine human health hazard that has been well known for many years. I have never understood why antibiotic use in farm animals for non-veterinary uses has been tolerated. Human misuse is a real – maybe bigger problem – too, but still…

  2. Considering that there is virtually no oversight on farm administered antibiotics the CDC is hardly stepping out on a limb to acknowledge that it is a hazard to human health. Until we get some statistics on farm-based antibiotic use and correlate it with disease outbreaks programs to address resistance are seriously hampered.