The prestigious journal Nature this week called for reining in the use of antibiotics in agriculture, adding to the growing chorus of scientists and public health advocates seeking reforms. “If farmers do not rein in the use of antibiotics for livestock, people will be severely affected,” read one of the weekly journal’s editorials. “The spread of dangerous bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics is fueled by overuse of the drugs — and not just in people. Farmers around the world routinely feed antibiotics to their animals, not only to prevent and treat infections, but also to make their animals grow faster. This leads to drug-resistant bacteria in the animals, and this resistance can spread to the bacteria that infect us.” The editorial noted that the overuse of antibiotics in livestock raising is a global issue, in part because pathogens do not respect international borders — “As long as any one country pumps its pigs and poultry full of drugs, everyone is at risk.” The journal pointed to Denmark’s ban on subtherapeutic antibiotics in pork production — what is now known as the “Danish experiment” — as a prime example of successful reform. In 1998, the poultry industry in Denmark voluntarily stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion and by 2000 the pork industry followed suit. In a separate Nature article, also published this week (Subscription Required), Frank Aarestrup, the head of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center for Antimicrobial Resistance Among Foodborne Pathogens also called for changes in the way livestock farms use antibiotics. “This is an unsustainable situation,” wrote Aarestrup. “Since many farmers began giving antibiotics to livestock in the late 1940s, people have been infected with strains of bacteria that are resistant to those antibiotics.” Danish farmers and public health officials decided to be proactive and have succeeded and reducing overall drug usage. “Since the mid-1990s in Denmark, the use of antimicrobial agents per kilogram of livestock produced has dropped by 60%. And pork production has actually increased by 50% since 1994, before any interventions began,” noted Aarestrup. He credits Denmark’s national antimicrobial resistance monitoring system and targeted regulations on usage, as well as the country’s 1995 prohibition on veterinarians profiting on selling antibiotics to farmers. “The conflict of interest is clear,” he wrote. “The more antibiotics farmers use, the more money these vets make. I believe that this decision had a huge impact on the overuse of antibiotics in livestock. Vets in the United States and most of the EU continue to profit from prescribing these drugs.” Though he admits reducing reliance on antibiotics is “far from easy,” Aarestrup says other countries can reform their antibiotics policies by learning from the Danish example and tailoring their reforms to work with their local needs. The journal’s editorial writers argue that it is “unlikely to be that simple.” Why? The authors point to the lucrative status quo and lack of political will to make big changes. “The biggest obstacle is likely to be generating the political resolve and public support needed to crack down on the lucrative trade in antibiotics,” reads the journal’s editorial. “This was possible in Denmark because there, perhaps uniquely, warnings from the medical community were picked up by the media, creating widespread public awareness of the problems caused by the overuse of antibiotics. People in other countries may not be so engaged, particularly when faced with the inevitable lobbying of the agricultural and veterinary sectors, which make big profits from selling antibiotics.” The authors argue that more specific data is needed to build the case for tighter controls on antibiotics. They suggest perhaps surveying 10 farms in the United States to try to estimate drug usage nationally. “The drugs are almost certainly overused, and are almost certainly having a damaging impact on public health, so publishing the results would help in raising awareness of the problem and generating the necessary support,” they write. “The people of Denmark deserve praise for their efforts, and other countries, and their people, should look more carefully at what their animals are being fed.”

  • Ted

    “Since many farmers began giving antibiotics to livestock in the late 1940s, people have been infected with strains of bacteria that are resistant to those antibiotics.” **
    And that’s not the half of it!!
    Since many farmers began electrifying their homes in the past century, people have been exposed to emissions from coal burning power plants and potential catastrophe from nuclear reactors. Since farmers began adopting motor vehicles, people have suffered terrible maiming injuries and even death from traffic accidents. Since farmers started listening to radios and televisions the quality of programming has been reduced to garbage. Since farmers started using the internet that has gone to crap, too.
    Mystery solved!!! It’s the goddam farmers causing all our anxiety. Bastards have been growing food to feed us and fiber to cloth us. Now we worry it is all poison, certainly a sinister conspiracy to destroy us all. About the only thing farmers haven’t ruined is the determination of passionately misguided food and industry haters to nanny us into an authoritarian utopia. But they threaten to derail even that noble cause. Bastard farmers!
    ** fair disclosure: antibiotics have been around only since about the 1940s when they revolutionized medical care for man and beast alike. Everyone has used (and abused) them since that time…not least of all anxious mothers demanding prescriptions for their children with coughs, colds, ear infections, etc.

  • Ted thinks all he has to do is toss around some snark and he’ll intimidate people into dropping their concerns.
    But Ted’s use of questionable arguments punctuated by overuse of exclamation points doesn’t hide the fact that the primary use of antibiotics in the US is for livestock, and that overuse of antibiotics is leading to new generations of hard-to-kill superbugs.
    One simple solution is stop using livestock practices that require the use of antibiotics, including overcrowding of animals–not to mention use of antibiotics to artificially stimulate extra growth.
    I agree with the journal’s editors: the political will to make changes weak, at best. And the problem is only exacerbated by industry front groups attacking any and all efforts to bring about change.

  • Hazel

    Hmmm…now that you mention it, it has been only since about the 1940’s that airliners have been flying over farm country here in the US. Since that time there have been hijackings and terrible, terrible plane crashes with great loss of human life. Coincidence? I think not! Almost certainly it is those danged farmers and veterinarians causing planes to fall from the sky. You don’t ever hear about Danish airliners crashing and burning all over the place. Proof positive it is those dreadful American farmers behind the chaos that is destroying our esteemed foodie brethren!

  • Farmer with a Dell

    I think if farmers would farm exactly the way Shelley tells them everything would be perfectly damned splendid. Farming probably is easy, there can’t be much of anything to it. It is hard to understand how farmers can screw it up so badly if they don’t intend to kill us all. Thank goodness for know-it-all computer programmers like Shelley telling us how she insists things be done. She gives us so much hope for survival.

  • Nathan

    I wonder what would happen if everyone around the world stopped using antibiotics all at once? Any theories?

  • Tony – KS

    Jeerers have always lacked the light.
    Balance is the key to all life.

  • Jon

    Hey “Farmer with a Dell” — Shelly’s right, actually. There’s a working alternative already in place that doesn’t require the use of antibiotics — in fact they are prohibited. It’s called Organic.
    At the very least it shows that livestock and poultry CAN be produced without antibiotics, hormones and other drugs — so why are the Big Guys using them and threatening our health via antibiotic resistance, etc.???

  • Doris

    The title of this story is extremely misleading.
    Under the expanding worldwide corporate CAFO model it’s not the farmers who are the ones using the antibiotics. They only own the “barn” facilities and any resulting dead animals and poultry and often the manure.
    The CAFO corporation owns the livestock and supplies the feed — which is laced with sub-therepeutic doses of antibiotics, designed to keep the animals alive in the oppressive squalid conditions.
    It’s the corporate CAFO model resonsible for the huge increase in antibiotic use — not farmers.

  • Ted

    And with that our cheerleading flex-gender NOFA spokesperson “Jon” brings us full circle to his highly over-rated “organic” approach which cruelly deprives livestock of effective medical treatment until it is too late, then pumps them full of drugs and dumps them into the conventional market. Some “alternative” there Jon/Jem/Jed/Joanie/Judith/Steve. The organic scam will never be a workable alternative to anything except maybe some other downward trending snake oil ripoff. But, hey, we all need something whimsical to piss our mad money away on from time to time.
    Keep watching those educational Green Acres reruns, Jon (and alter egos) and Shelley, and you all will eventually solve the agricultural mysteries of the universe, right?

  • Don E

    Cruelty is as cruelty does, TedTrollMudd. Just stick your nose in a CAFO and decide if that’s the kind of animal husbandry that you want to feed your family……..