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Antibiotics On Animal Farms: The ‘Global Health Crisis’ Of Superbugs

Antibiotic resistance and ‘superbugs’ pose a threat to both human and non-human animals – and intensive farming is largely to blame
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In the latter half of 2022, a new report shone fresh light on the relationship between antibiotic-resistant bacteria, superbugs, and animal farming, particularly on factory farms. 

It revealed that UK rivers and waterways were “awash with superbugs.” Specifically, waterways adjacent to factory farms and “high welfare” outdoor farms were found to contain antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus. Both of these can cause serious health complications in humans.

Slurry run off from intensive dairy farms was also spreading the bacteria, the report said.

“Our food system is broken. It is in part causing our climate to change. And now, we are on the edge of, yet another, global human health crisis. Except this is not one we will be able to vaccinate our way out of,” reads the report, published by World Animal Protection.

The organization’s farming campaigners manager, Lindsay Duncan, echoed this in a statement. They said: “The World Health Organization has estimated that antibiotic resistance will be the leading cause of death globally by 2050 with a total economic cost of £66 trillion – this is a human health crisis.”

Adobe Stock Factory farmed animals are often given antibiotics to prevent disease

What are ‘superbugs’? Are they dangerous?

Superbugs are strains of bacteria, viruses, and parasites that are resistant to most widely used antibiotics. This can lead to more severe cases of potentially preventable illnesses, as well as infections that cannot be treated with medication. Examples include drug-resistant salmonella, campylobacter, tuberculosis, and gonorrhea.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says antimicrobial resistance is an “urgent global public health threat.” It estimates that in the US alone, more than 2.8 million drug-resistant infections occur every year.

Many cases are fatal. As such, the CDC “dedicated” its 2019 report on the issue to “the 48,700 families [in the US] who lose a loved one each year to antibiotic resistance.”

Globally, it’s predicted that at least 700,000 people die every year from superbug infections. There is potential for this to rise to 10 million by 2050, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned in 2019. Meanwhile, antimicrobial resistance could force up to 24 million people into extreme poverty by the end of this decade.

Drug-resistant infections also impact companion animals, along with captive animals in zoos and those farmed for food. This is worsened by the fact that resistant germs can rapidly spread via soil, water, waste, and food supply chains.

What causes antibiotic resistance?

The overprescription of antibiotics in medical settings since the drugs were first introduced has led to a sharp uptick in resistant bacteria. Animal agriculture’s misuse of such medications has further exacerbated the issue.

Antibiotics used to be freely given to animals farmed for food to speed up their growth, and thus increase profits. However, certain areas like the EU and US have introduced laws banning their routine use in recent years. Due to loopholes in the laws however, farmers can still access vast quantities of drugs. 

Antibiotics are now given to prevent disease in animals, and require a veterinary prescription. But factory farms, by their nature, are breeding grounds for disease. Large quantities of animals housed in close proximity to each other, often in unsanitary conditions, means illnesses can quickly spread.

Commonly, they can infect an entire group and potentially be transmissible to humans. To prevent this, farmers feed antibiotics to their animals to keep them healthy enough to reach slaughter age (with their boosted growth rate a profitable side effect).

How do people catch superbugs from food?

When animals are slaughtered for food, resistant germs in their gut can contaminate the products made from their meat, milk, or eggs. Humans can get sick from eating or handling contaminated food or drink products.

The animal farming industry’s misuse of antibiotics has consequences for other sectors, too. According to the CDC’s 2019 report, when the waste of “contaminated” animals is used as fertilizer on farms, fruits and vegetables can also become contaminated.

Animal farming has been repeatedly linked to creating resistant bacteria. For example, the CDC says the production and consumption of chicken, pork, turkey, and beef is to blame for resistant salmonella strains.

Superbugs are everywhere 

In July 2022, it was reported that a new superbug had been discovered in UK pork products

Found in more than 10 percent of all pork meat sampled, the enterococci bacteria strain was shown to be rampant. When transmitted to humans, it can cause infections resulting in blood, brain, and heart complications. Analysis of the bacteria strain found that it was resistant to key “last resort” antibiotic treatments. And this was not an isolated case.

In December 2022, it was revealed that US beef farms are still routinely giving antibiotics to their livestock. Vegan senator Cory Booker commented that the practice represented a “reckless overuse” of such medications. And, that it posed a “deadly public health threat.” 

The scale of the problem was found to be colossal. Some of the largest food retailers, including McDonald’s and Walmart, are supplied by such farms. Amongst the antibiotics being given to animals were those classified as HP-CIAs, or “highest priority critically important antibiotics.” These are, again, prescribed to humans only as a last resort.

Salmon farming nets spread out in the ocean
Adobe Stock Salmon farmers and other ‘seafood’ producers also regularly use antibiotics

Following the UK pork and US beef concerns, Australian salmon farmers were also found to be guilty of extreme antibiotic use.

Just days after the US beef news broke, reports came to light that medication use in Antipodean salmon farming could be increasing the risk of superbugs. It came after two salmon farms in Tasmania used more than a ton of antibiotics in just a 12-month period.

Making our food system safer

According to Humane Being, a nonprofit that campaigns for a future free from animal exploitation, in order to prevent antibiotic resistance and stem the risk of future pandemics, we must end intensive factory farming.

Humane Being took the UK government to court in 2022, accusing it of concealing the public health risks of animal farming. The first-of-its-kind legal appeal argued that despite acknowledging the threat posed, the UK government has not taken adequate preventative actions. This includes making the public aware of the risks linked to animal farming – including antibiotic resistance, environmental damage, and heightened pandemic risk.

Dr. Alice Brough is a pig veterinarian who was a co-claimant in the case. She said at the time: “Every part of this practice is a ticking time bomb for our species.”

Humane Being is joined by a slew of other organizations championing for the end of animal agriculture. In its place, they want to see plant-based food systems ushered in. The movement has continued to pick up pace in recent years, with the alternative protein sectors seeing increased sales while animal meat and milk figures drop.

The post Antibiotics On Animal Farms: The ‘Global Health Crisis’ Of Superbugs appeared first on Plant Based News.

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