Antiobiotics: Building a Better Bacteria

What are we improving?

It may be fair to say that the United States is compulsive about trying to improve their food supplies. Genetic modification, antibiotics, forced feeding, you name it. Is improvement of food really what's accomplished by any of these activities, however?

This article was spawned when I read Food Bacteria More Drug-Resistant in U.S., in the National Geographic. This study has found that strains of the Campylobacter jejuni bacteria demonstrated a 2 percent resistance to antibiotics in Australia, whereas 18 percent of samples were drug resistant in United States patients. What's the difference? Australia bans a wide variety of antibiotics in poultry and other livestock - which are commonly used in the U.S. and Europe.

So, there's the question - do these antibiotics improve the poultry, or are they really improving the bacteria?

The essential problem is that these antibiotics, when used on poultry, will kill off most of the bacteria infecting the birds. However, those who survive will spread and breed - and these bacteria are resistant to treatment.

One of the reasons commonly cited as a cause of drug-resistant bacteria development is the overuse of antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics is definitely a strong characteristic of modern livestock. From the Pesticide Action Network:

As a means of solving this problem, intensive farming methods use high doses of antibiotics in chicken feed, and growth hormones are used to increase the speed of the chickensí growth. As noted by the World Watch 2003 report, chickens often cannot walk properly because they have been pumped full of growth-promoting antibiotics. Farmers often do not use these drugs due to illness in the animals but because drug companies and extension agencies have convinced them that the antibiotics will ensure the health of their birds and increase their weight.

Pesticide Action Network / Asia and the Pacific

Modern methods of livestock and poultry farming are based almost entirely on a mass-treatment basis. Don't wait until a bird is ill; treat them all constantly, just in case. This attitude creates a system which seems almost designed to breed better bacteria.

What can change these attitudes? Farmers have found that they get better profit out of larger birds. They've learned that the birds grow faster when pumped with growth hormones. They're plumper; juicier; and younger when they arrive at the table. Farmers have little motivation to switch to free-range, natural methods given the general preference of the modern market. I don't immediately see a tipping point for change. A disastrous event, such as an epidemic, could have the desired effect - otherwise, it's up to people to boycott the market for hormone and antibiotic fed animals.

Updated by Joe Dolson on 24 August, 2009

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