The start of the 20th century marked the beginning of the antibiotic age. The most famous and credited as the first case of antibiotic discovery was made by Alexander Flemming in 1928, who identified Penicillin. The drug was introduced to the wider market in the 1940s. Since then antibiotics have been prescribed in great quantities, often misdiagnosed 30% to 50% of the time. But those statistics only consider the human use.
Besides doctors over prescribing antibiotics, livestock farmers have also been feeding their animals the bacteria-killing drugs for decades. Since the animals live in crowded conditions, often exceeding more than several thousands, the antibiotic use at the time made sense. An unforeseen added bonus was that the animals gained weight on the drugs, allowing farmers to use less feed. It became common practice to feed livestock low levels of antibiotics to save money. In 2014 alone, 21 million pounds of antibiotics were sold to livestock farmers. That’s more than three times the amount used by humans.
And, in small increments, antibiotics only kill a portion of the bacterial colony, essentially minimizing the competition for the strongest, most resistant strains to grow and thrive. And due to plasmids – small circular DNA, separate from the larger bacterial DNA, found in the cytoplasm of bacteria – the genes responsible for drug resistance can spread. Plasmids can be shared among bacterial colonies, and even among separate species, leading to every bacterium inheriting the resistance.
But according to the American farming industry, the connection between farms and superbugs is grossly over exaggerated. However, scientists cannot prove or disprove this statement due to their exclusion from farm sites. There have been cases were farmers have allowed scientists to test their animals only to have their contracts pulled by the meat corporations.
In order to study the percentage of pigs that had Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, an antibiotic resistant staph bacteria that can cause serious infection in skin and organ systems of humans, the scientists had to obtain pig snouts from butcher shops as they had no access to live animals. And even then they found that 70% of the 270 pig snouts tested were positive for the bacteria. When farm workers were tested, 64% of them had resistant MRSA growing in their nostrils. The drug resistant staph strain had even been found airborne two hundred thirty-five yards downwind from a farm. And MRSA wasn’t the only drug resistant strain that could be spread by air. Scientists tailing a chicken truck with the windows of their car open found antibiotic-resistant enterococci, which causes more than 20,000 infections in the U.S. per year, in the air and on car surfaces, including the lip of a soda can in the cup holder.
So what do we do to minimize the amount of antibiotic use?
One solution is to eat less meat. But the American diet is hung up on hamburgers and hot-dogs – just look at the 4th of July cookouts just this month. Another solution would be to eat organically. Organic farms do not feed their animals antibiotic or hormones. But this would mean stomaching higher meat prices.
But compared to the our health, isn’t the increased price of a hamburger worth it?