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Dishing the dirt on factory farming - part two

News Section Icon Published 29/11/2012


In our last post, we talked about the devastating consequences of water nutrient pollution and the role that concentrated animal waste plays in this. Now we take a look at another aspect of the same problem; the effect that factory farming and animal waste have on pathogenic organisms and what this means for our health.

Antibiotic overload

Like humans or a pet cat or dog, farm animals can benefit from antibiotics. But factory farming takes this thinking to the extreme, using it before the animals even become sick, as a preventative measure, and even using it to promote growth sometimes.

In the EU and US, large amounts of antibiotics are prescribed preventatively (known as prophylactic treatment). This is often due to the cramped, stressful conditions in factory farms, which make the animals prone to infections. Although piglets are naturally weaned at 3 to 4 months, for example, factory-farmed piglets in the EU can be removed from their mother at 28 days. This can cause stress and prevent the immune system from developing properly, which often makes intervention with antibiotics necessary1.

  • The Dutch antibiotics monitoring service, MARAN, has calculated the number of antibiotic doses that farm animals received over their lifetimes in 2008; an average pig ending up as bacon, ham and pork was on antibiotics for nearly 20% of its life; an average broiler (meat) chicken for 12% of its life. In contrast, the average UK citizen has only 0.75 prescriptions for antibiotics per year2.

    Some good news however: MARAN has recently announced3 that the total sales of antibiotics in the Netherlands dropped by 51% between 2009 and 2012.

While outlawed in the EU, antibiotics to promote the growth of farm animals are allowed for factory-farm operators in the US4. In fact, nearly 80% of the total antibiotics distributed in 2009 in the US were for farm animals (US Food and Drug Administration, 20095,6). And they clearly believe it’s wrong (20127), stating: "FDA believes the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals for production purposes (e.g., to promote growth or improve feed efficiency) represents an injudicious use of these important drugs."

From animals to humans

Not all antibiotics are metabolised by animals and much is therefore excreted in their waste. According to the World Watch Institute (20118), 75 percent of the antibiotics used on livestock are excreted in waste. And as slurry from factory farms is regularly sprayed on fields as fertiliser (and slurry lagoons can also overflow), antibiotic residues may end up in ground waters and rivers9. Farm workers can play a role, too; according to an article in Environmental Health Perspectives (200910), industrial-farm workers are a key risk for zoonotic infection as a result of their "routine and intensive exposure" to the farm animals, potentially serving as a "bridge population" that could transfer infections from animals to the wider public.

Resistance is futile

The rampant use of antibiotics in farm animals may well be harming us, driving the development of drug-resistant bacteria, which can reduce our ability to recover from a wide range of food-borne illnesses and diseases (EPA, 201211). The situation is so acute that the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Margaret Chan, warned on World Health Day 2011 of "a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and once again, kill unabated"12.

This video from Pew (201213) summarises our thoughts perfectly, with this sound bite from Alan Sexton, farmer and veterinarian, in particular: "If you gave me the assignment to create a superbug, I would do exactly what they do in the big feeding lots. You feed a low level of it and then you gradually increase it until you kill off all the easy to kill bugs and you’re left with the tougher and tougher bacteria until you get one that doesn’t let anything kill it." A sobering thought.

If we moved to humane-sustainable farming, we’d waste less antibiotics on farm animals. This would allow us to save them for when we need them most and reduce the likelihood of an outbreak of a serious antibiotic-resistant infection.

What do you think? Ever had antibiotics not work for you?

Our sources

  1. Compassion in World Farming, Sustain and the Soil Association (2011), Case Study of a Health Crisis (page 21-22)
  2. Compassion in World Farming, Sustain and the Soil Association (2011), Case Study of a Health Crisis (page 10)
  3. Maran (2012), Antibiotic Usage
  4. Compassion in World Farming, Sustain and the Soil Association (2011), Case Study of a Health Crisis (page 7-8)
  5. FDA (2009), Summary Report on Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals
  6. FDA (2009), Sales of Antibacterial Drugs in Kilograms
  7. FDA (2010), The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals
  8. Worldwatch Institute (2011), Global Meat Production and Consumption Continue to Rise
  9. EPA (2012), Potential Environmental Impacts of Animal Feeding Operations
  10. EHP (2009), Swine CAFOs & Novel H1N1 Flu: Separating Facts from Fears
  11. WHO (2011), Antimicrobial Resistance
  12. WHO (2011), World Health Day 2011
  13. Pew (2012), Interview with Allan Sexton, farmer

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