Most people seem to believe that superbugs and bacteria that can no longer be controlled with antibiotics (antibiotic resistant) have come about because doctors dish out antibiotics for every sniffle. In fact, a half of all antibiotics manufactured are used in animal farming for treating diseases (therapeutic), preventing diseases (prophylactic) and simply to make animals grow faster (growth-promoting) is rarely mentioned. And this is the main cause of antibiotic resistance
By Any Other Name
It seems crazy that it was perfectly okay to give animals antibiotics every day simply to make them grow faster. Eventually the EU acted and on January 1, 2006, it became illegal to use growth promoting antibiotics in Europe. Did the amount of antibiotics being used then drop? Not a bit of it! The total quantity of antibiotics has barely changed - there's been a drop in growth promoters but a matching increase in ‘disease prevention’ drugs. Surprise, surprise, these work in exactly the same way as the banned drugs!
It's hardly a secret because these drugs, (which are available only on a vet's prescription) are even advertised to farmers for their growth-promoting properties in direct defiance of an EU Directive!
Antibiotics have been in use since the 1950s and some bacteria are so used to them that they simply shrug them off - have become antibiotic resistant. This makes some food poisoning infections - salmonella, campylobacter and Escherichia coli (E coli)) - hard to control. It's the same with the hospital superbugs where there is now almost no medications left for dealing with them. They include vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE), which infects wounds and incisions.
The resistance in food-poisoning bacteria has come mainly from the almost constant use of antibiotics to prevent disease in animals while with VRE, it came from growth-promoting antibiotics.
Numerous scientific reports have spelt out the threat to human health from using antibiotics and mostly they've been ignored and antibiotic use has continued. That's the political power of the livestock industry for you! (see Richard Young’s The Use and Misuse of Antibiotics in UK Agriculture - parts 1 to 4 - from www.soilassociation.org). his report was followed by three others.
Just Say No
In 1997, a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) called for antibiotic use in farmed animals to be curbed . In 1998, the National Research Council & Institute of Medicine made an even stronger call. In 1999, the UK government’s own advisors issued a massive report agreeing with the WHO (Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food).
But the drugs have just kept flowing and antibiotic resistance has got worse. Sandy Macara, former chairman of the British Medical Association, didn't mince his words:
“There is a real prospect that the majority of our antibiotics could become impotent for the purposes upon which we have relied upon them for 40 years. This would transform society, essentially taking us back to prewar days when infectious diseases were prevalent. It would also place an extremely high risk on invasive surgery such as hip replacements.”
How do we know it's livestock farmers who are mostly to blame? A team of researchers found evidence that animal agriculture is the main source of deadly mutations and reported it in the journal PLoS Medicine in 2007.
They found that antibiotics and resistant bacteria are in the air and soil around farms, in surface and ground water, in wild animals and even on much of the meat produced by these places. But when Denmark banned growth-promoting antibiotics there was a drop in number of resistant bacteria in all these areas.
Across the third world, where intensive animal farming is exploding fast, there are even fewer controls on antibiotic use than in the UK. Residues get into the environment and through a complex process bacteria can pass on this resistance, even to entirely different and unrelated types of bacteria.
The superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a high-profile and persistent problem in many UK hospitals but in 2004 a new strain was found. It came from intensively-farmed pigs, chickens and other livestock in The Netherlands.
The UK government says it is determined to reduce antibiotic use in UK farming and yet they went up by 3.5 per cent between 2004 and 2005 despite a fall in the number of animals.
In the UK, over 90 per cent of veterinary antibiotics are used in pig or poultry production