I buy organic, free-range chicken from my friend Bill Moore, not only because
it tastes good and I like to support local family farmers. I also do it because
I have a tender feeling for a small boy named Brian.
When Brian was 2 years old, he got infected with the potentially deadly
strain of the Escherichia coli, E.coli0157:H7. He was hospitalized for weeks,
gravely ill, but survived, traumatized and with secondary health and emotional
problems. The bacterial strain that nearly killed him is one of a growing number
of bacteria resistant to antibiotics.
Brian did not get infected with E.coli0157:H7 by eating infected meat.
Nonetheless, the Centers for Disease Control say that illness and death from
resistant bacteria, particularly in food, is rising dangerously.
They cite 8,000 to 18,000 annual hospitalizations, 2,400 bloodstream
infections and 500 deaths from salmonella alone, not to mention the
Campylobacter, E.coli and other bacteria. The Food and Drug Administration says
the nation's meat supply has become seriously contaminated with bacteria,
reporting for example, that 20 percent of poultry carcasses are infected with
salmonella and 88 percent of broiler carcasses have Campylobacter.
FDA scientists have documented increasing levels of some resistant bacteria
in meat in recent years. No wonder health officials tell us to cook our meat!
It's a reasonable precaution, but it doesn't address the sources of the problem.
The CDC and many others say one major cause of resistance is increased
low-level use of antibiotics by the increasingly industrial livestock sector.
The CDC estimates that 80 percent of the nation's livestock receives small daily
antibiotic doses not intended to cure known ailments but instead to fight any
before they come up, thus saving the animals' energy and farmers' money. Many
bacteria are killed off by these antibiotics, but some aren't, becoming
The prophylactic use of antibiotics as growth promoters is particularly
common among the nation's growing number of livestock farms. Large animal
facilities -- sometimes holding hundreds of thousands of chickens, for example,
are breeding grounds for bacteria and disease, which antibiotics keep under
control. Of course, meat and feed additive industries, many industrial farmers
and consequently the U.S. Department of Agriculture, resist the link between
livestock practices and antibiotic resistance. They say there isn't sufficient
proof that subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics are at fault. They point fingers
at hospital uses of antibiotics, overprescribing of antibiotics by doctors for
ailments that aren't even bacteria-caused, the use of anti-bacterial soaps and
other sources, some of which clearly do contribute to antibiotic resistance. So
The livestock industry's arguments ring hollow. It's clear the industry is
struggling to find sound arguments when apologists worry Cassandra-like that
phasing out antibiotics as livestock growth promoters would cost consumers
annually between $4.85 and $9.72 more per person for meat and fish. Imagine
that! The industry's claims of "judicious and responsible use'' of
antibiotics looks phony, and its urging of slow, voluntary and watered-down
public policy responses looks and is morally compromised.
As with many food issues, Europe engaged this fight ahead of the United
States, and its experiences are instructive. After the European Union banned
four human antibiotics as livestock growth promoters in December 1998,
scientists found that levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria began declining
within months. Similar results have been found with other antibiotics.
I'm grateful that Brian survived his horrible ordeal. Not all are so lucky.
What level of proof is fair to expect before federal agencies make livestock
producers do the proper thing to protect antibiotics? All we need to answer this
question sensibly is to consider the millions of small children, elderly people,
people with compromised immune systems, or at particular risk for infections,
and ask whose needs are greater? Their need for access to this common arsenal of
health tools, or the need of mostly very large farms to help them bring
livestock to market weight more economically?
The answer is obvious. The government should do what the World Health
Organization, CDC and many others are asking of them -- let farmers still use
antibiotics to treat specific maladies, but phase them out as growth promoters.
Not set up a regulatory structure that would take decades to have impact, as the
FDA proposed last year. Not set voluntary guidelines for livestock producers to
follow. Phase them out.
is a Madison resident who writes this column every other week.
© 2000 The Capital Times