Here's a shocker: Your shopping habits could be destroying modern medicine. Certainly, that's not your intention, but every time we drop a standard meat product into our shopping carts, we're supporting the dark side of the food industry, one that uses millions of pounds of antibiotics to raise livestock. In a groundbreaking new study, U.S. researchers detected staph bacteria, including MRSA, in the noses of industrial farm workers, suggesting antibiotics in farming are a major driver of hard-to-kill, sometimes deadly bacteria.
These MRSA-tainted farms often focus on efficiency and production of cheap food, not animal health, well-being, clean meat, or holistic farming practices. In fact, new staph strains emerging in industrial, nonorganic farm workers are now dubbed "livestock-associated staph." It's not the animals' fault, but more a result of the chronic, low-dose antibiotics the creatures are forced to eat to speed their growth and prevent disease in the crowded, filthy conditions in which they're held. This constant unnecessary use of antibiotics gives bacteria the upper hand, and the germs evolve to outsmart the drugs.
Researchers of the recent study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, looked all different types of farmers, including those employed through industrial systems that use antibiotics; they also looked at antibiotic-free farmers and found the new and dangerous strains of bacteria were only showing up in the noses of the industrial farmworkers.
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The study, led by scientists from Johns Hopkins, the University of North Carolina, and George Washington University, provides more evidence that antibiotic use in farming is a dangerous practice, one that is breeding hard-to-kill supergerms that are increasingly rendering modern medicine's antibiotic arsenal useless. "This study shows that these livestock-associated strains are present among workers at industrial livestock operations, and that these strains are resistant not just to methicillin, but to multiple antibiotics—including antibiotics that are used to treat human infections," explains Christopher Heaney, PhD, coauthor of the study and assistant professor of environmental health sciences and epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Disturbing Fact: More antibiotics are fed to food animals in North Carolina than are given to all Americans. Thanks to this kind of misuse, antibiotic-resistant diseases now kill more Americans than HIV/AIDS, says New York's Rep. Louise M. Slaughter.
Researchers found that samples of the staph strain S. aureus that were multidrug-resistant were roughly twice as prevalent among individuals exposed to an industrial livestock operation as among those working in an antibiotic-free environment. S. aureus that was resistant to tetracycline—an antibiotic that has been used in industrial livestock production since the 1950s—was 19 times as prevalent among industrial livestock operation workers as among those in antibiotic-free operations.
These infections aren't just lingering in farmworkers who spend time inside the enclosed buildings that house thousands—or even tens of thousands—of antibiotic-fed farm animals. Previous analyses have turned up some other concerning facts about more potent pathogens and about drugs even turning up in supermarket meat:
The bacteria run deep. Heavy use of antibiotics and other industrial-feedlot farming methods leads to tougher meat. To counteract that, industry has turned to "mechanical tenderization," a process that uses needles or blades to puncture the outside of the meat to make it more tender. The problem is, this drives any exterior bacteria deep into the meat, where they're harder to kill.
More virulent infections emerge. Turkey was the source of the largest food recall in U.S. history, which occurred in 2011 when one person died and more than 100 were hospitalized after eating ground-turkey products contaminated with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella.
Veterinary drugs turn up in store meat. A 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found many dangerous substances, including pesticides, veterinary medicines, dioxin, and heavy metals, in the U.S. meat supply. USDA's meat audit turned up things like the carcinogen arsenic, penicillin (a drug that can cause life-threatening allergic reactions in some people), ivermectin (an animal wormer than can cause neurological damage in humans), and flunixin (a veterinary drug that can cause kidney damage, stomach and colon ulcers, and blood in the stool of humans).
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How to Protect Yourself:
• Organic, Certified Humane, and Animal Welfare Approved programs ban the routine use of low-dose antibiotics in livestock. (Organic completely bans antibiotic use, while the other two programs only allow antibiotics in acute cases when an animal may really be sick and need it. Chronic, low-dose antibiotic feeding is prohibited in all three of these systems.)
• Find farmers you trust. Search LocalHarvest.org to find a farmer in your area. Ask them how they raise their animals, including how they prevent animal sickness and how they treat it. Ask if they use antibiotics in the animals' feed and water. Often, farmers who raise their livestock on pasture don't need antibiotics. They just raise fewer animals and give them more room, feed them a more natural diet, and rotate the animals to fresh plots to reduce disease buildup.
• Eat less meat. Study after study shows you'll live longer if you eat less meat. Soak and cook dried organic beans regularly for a healthy, cheap protein source you can rely on. Try these 9 Super-Healthy, Vegetarian Protein Sources, too.
Buy It: The Carb-Conscious Vegetarian
• Say enough is enough. Tell your federal representatives to support the H.R. 1150: The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2013.
• Get inspired. Learn about people who are taking on the pharmaceutical- and chemical-backed farming system, including this pro football player tackling antibiotics, to find out more about ending antibiotic abuse in the food system.
Published on: July 24, 2013
Updated on: July 25, 2013