Organic chickens

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria is less common on poultry farms that have made the transition from conventional methods to organic farming, finds a new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The study researchers tested both newly converted organic poultry farms and conventional for enterococci, a bacteria common in poultry litter, food and water.  Enterococci is also common among humans, especially while staying in a hospital, where bacterial infections can spread quickly. The research found that of the enterococci present at all the farms, the organic farms displayed much lower levels of single and multiple antibiotic-resistant enterococci. By the USDA’s certified organic standards, organic livestock animals may not be fed antibiotics as a preventative—a common practice in conventional farming.

And, the study findings reflect the benefit of reduced antibiotic use, according to study leader Amy Sapkota, assistant professor with the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health, who said in a university news release, “While we know that the dynamics of antibiotic resistance differ by bacterium and antibiotic, these findings show that, at least in the case of enterococci, we begin to reverse resistance on farms even among the first group of animals that are grown without antibiotics.”

The rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria has led to a number of human risks if untreatable with common antibiotics—a situation that has many scientists concerned. Sapopka said that the researchers found “the differences were so significant across several different classes of antibiotics—even in the very first flock that was produced after the transition to organic standards.”

In the first report of its kind released by the FDA in December, 2010, the amount of  antibiotic use in factory farms totaled  nearly 80 percent of all antibiotic use in the country, some 29 million pounds of drugs—mostly used to prevent illness rather than treat it—that were distributed to livestock in 2009.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

image: Will Merydith