Deadly Superbug Mysteriously Appears on U.S. Pig Farm

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Deadly Superbug Mysteriously Appears on U.S. Pig Farm

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A severe threat to the U.S. food supply has been detected on a U.S. pig farm where a rare superbug gene that’s resistant to antibiotics was discovered by researchers at The Ohio State University.

"It is an extremely rare gene. How it got on this farm, we don't know," Thomas Wittum, chair of the veterinary medicine team at The Ohio State University and lead author of the study, told NBC News.

The gene is known as bla IMP-27, and it makes bacteria immune to last resort antibiotics called carbapenems. Resistance to last resort antibiotics could make minor human infections untreatable, turning them deadly. Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), a particularly worrisome bacterium, kills half of the people it infects.

"The emergence of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae has been described as heralding the end of the antibiotic era with their global expansion presenting an urgent threat to public health," the researchers wrote.

The researchers noted that none of the animals who were scheduled for slaughter showed traces of the gene, meaning it’s not likely to be in the food supply from that particular farm, but its presence is alarming.

“Worse, this superbug gene is carried on an easily swapped bit of genetic material called a plasmid,” reports NBC,
“and the researchers found it in several different species of bacteria on the farm.”

The presence of the superbug on the plasmid means it’s likely that different strains of bacteria on the farm are also assimilating the gene.

The farm’s name or location has not been made public, but it wasn’t a massive factory farm operation, according to the researchers--it’s a family-owned operation raising approximately 1,500 sows through to slaughter.

Researchers detected the antibiotic-resistant superbug on several different samples including varying strains of E. coli and Enterobacteriaceae, which can lead to the deadly CRE infections.

"The implication of our finding is that there is a real risk that CRE may disseminate in food animal populations and eventually contaminate fresh retail meat products," the researchers wrote.

CRE has been pointed to as a major threat to the future of antibiotics. The World Health Organization has been urging world leaders to mitigate the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by restricting the use of antibiotics in livestock animals.

As much as 70 percent of medically important antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to livestock animals not only in the prevention and treatment of diseases, but also in the rapid increase of animal size.

The researchers noted that the farm where the superbug was detected does not use any carbapenem drugs nor antibiotics to increase weight gain.

The farmer was not aware of any interactions or practices that could have introduced the superbug. The researchers noted that the farm has been managing a closed herd since the 1960s.

"We think it was carried in," the researchers noted. "We don't know if it was on equipment or supplies or by people."

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