For the first time, the Food and Drug Administration released a report on antibiotic use in factory farms, totaling the number at 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.
With it comes a slew of recommendations to decrease the use of antibiotics in livestock animals due to a number of concerns including a recent surge in antibiotic resistant pathogens that affect humans. The more a strain of bacteria is exposed to antibiotics, the more likely it is to adapt, becoming harder to kill and often times stronger and more severe.
Food & Water Watch recently released a map outlining the massive number of factory farms in the country, which house nearly 2 billion animals, typically in crammed cages and feed lots. Chickens may be packed six to a cage not much larger than an open piece of newspaper. These conditions — or lack thereof — cause otherwise docile animals to become territorial and violent. Chickens have their beaks seared off as chicks for this reason, so they don't peck other chickens to death. Pigs will have their tails docked off at birth to prevent other pigs from biting at it. Dairy cows tethered to milking machines will develop infected teats, and any time animals are densely packed, diseases can spread in a matter of hours.
Though it was once common practice to treat infected animals with appropriate medications, it is now an industry standard to load these animals full of antibiotics before any disease sets in, as a preventative. That's a bit like your mom making you take penicillin every day before school so that you don't catch strep throat.
And it's worth repeating here that the more we're exposed to antibiotics — because they do affect the meat, eggs and dairy products we buy — the less effective those drugs will be when we really need them.
The silver lining, if there is one, is in access to this information. It will force watchdog groups and regulatory agencies to limit use of antibiotics and enforce stricter penalties. And it will boost interest in organic animal products, which by USDA standards cannot include any antibiotics at all.
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Photo: Michaelll courtesy of Creative Commons