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Bad Bugs Biting Back

“This is the way the world ends; Not with a bang but a whimper.” — T. S. Eliot

Writers and filmmakers have long liked apocalyptic stories. In the last century the dominant cause of the end of humanity became a nuclear holocaust, but a giant asteroid hitting Earth has also been popular. And then there are those pesky zombies. That's science fiction — so far — but out in the real world, it might well be that the most likely cause of our specie's demise will be a microscopic bug we cannot defeat, and that we vanish, or vastly diminish, not with a bang but a whimper.

And what if that bug arises from the “farms” where we mass-produce meat?

Our industrialized, factory-farming agricultural system is unsustainable from an ecological perspective. It pollutes, uses vast amounts of water and other animal protein in production, too often produces unsafe meat, contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in both animals and humans, contributes to climate change -- and all these problems will only worsen as the human population increases and continues or, or even increases, levels of meat consumption. On top of that, it is unduly cruel -- but that's not today's topic. Neither is the fact that much meat consumption is bad for you. The nation's most-known health advisers, Drs. Oz and Roizen, just wrote that “Red and processed meats (lunch meat, sausage, hot dogs or bacon) are a straight shot to heart disease, some cancers and memory loss.”

Unlike some more strident vegetarians, I would not force my own diet on anybody else; anyway, I have no illusion that everybody will stop eating meat, whatever the evidence that most meat production is ecologically disastrous, inhumane, and unhealthy for all concerned. I admire those who at least try to be more responsible and sustainable in meat production, even though their impact on the whole system is so small as to be largely symbolic, and of course they still must kill in order to produce their product. But it's good symbolism, and I hope they thrive and grow.

For now and the foreseeable future, however, the vast majority of modern meat production relies upon mass production, enabled by inhumane practices and the use of drugs, including antibiotics, to spur growth and putatively prevent infections. However, it's now long been suspected, and increasingly confirmed, that this endangers human health. Sustained use of low doses of antimicrobials is a textbook means of breeding drug-resistant pathogens — it's Darwinism 101. And agricultural lobbies don't want anybody telling them this is a bad thing.

Antibiotics are arguably the single most important and widely used medical intervention of our era; almost every medical specialty uses antibiotic therapy at some point. These drugs have prevented incalculable suffering and death and are perhaps still the closest medications we have to a “magic bullet.” Responsible health researchers, doctors, researchers and advocates have been warning about this misuse of one of our most important human medications for decades. I drafted a policy statement on this topic adopted a decade ago by the AMA. Now there is legislation to curtail such use, but it is embroiled in a prolonged political battle. Controversies about these practices have resulted in numerous reports, dating back decades, urging more caution or outright bans on the practice. The World Health Organization and other leading medical and public health bodies have advised that animals not be dosed with antibiotics used in humans—to little avail here in the United States to date, even though our own Food and Drug Administration took this position as far back as 1972.

Still, even many longtime observers of the issue are surprised—even shocked—to learn the true extent of antibiotic use on farms; estimates are that upward of 70 percent of all antibiotics manufactured are used in agricultural settings. Thus, such use is a large source of profit for the pharmaceutical industry. And most of the agricultural dosing of animals is conducted without much meaningful veterinary or other oversight — the drugs are just added to feed.

The introduction of molecular epidemiologic tools, which allow for tracking of specific bacterial strains, has heightened the worry because we can show that resistant bacteria originating on farms are finding their way into humans. The extent of this epidemiologic “spillover” from farms to humans is uncertain, but there is no question that the phenomenon does exist. Leading experts have unequivocally stated that our current practices of feeding antibiotics to animals go against “a strong scientific consensus that it is a bad idea” and that the long stalemate on this issue constitutes a “struggle between strong science and bad politics.” The intentional obfuscation of the issue by those with profit in mind is an uncomfortable reminder of the long and ongoing battle to regulate the tobacco industry, with similar dismaying exercises in political and public relations lobbying and even scandal. As with tobacco control, science and health concerns should take precedence over profit in regulating the overuse of antibiotics in the production of meat and other agricultural products. Other nations are ahead of the United States in this regard and have banned routine agricultural use, with demonstrable benefit in reduced bacterial resistance.

The FDA and legislators should ban the nontherapeutic agricultural use of antibiotics. This ban should be lifted only if it is scientifically proved, in unbiased studies, that this use does not contribute to bacterial resistance in humans. Producers of agricultural antibiotics should be required to submit data on the specific antibiotics used, in sufficient detail to track usage and resistance trends. Finally, individual and business consumers of meat should begin to demand that the meat they purchase be grown without the routine use of antibiotics.

The overuse of antibiotics is just one way industrial agriculture relies upon unsustainable practices. It's now past time we act in name of science and public health. And if some animals are treated better as a side effect, all the better. Otherwise, they may wind up getting their revenge in an ironic manner nobody desires.

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