Cattle Not to Blame for Antibody Resistance in Hum
Resistance to Antibodies is a Problem, But one Caused by Human Foibles, Not Agriculture
May 26, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
THE BridgeNews FORUM: Viewpoints on farming, farm policy and related agricultural issues.
May 19, 2000
CHURCHVILLE, Va.-Denmark has voluntarily renounced the use of antibiotics in livestock. Although Danish scientists haven't found any evidence linking human illness and farm antibiotics, they've based their action on theoretical possibility, driven by the politics of consumer fear.
Dr. Frederick Angulo, who works for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, also wants to stop the treatment of livestock and poultry with antibiotics. He thinks the roots of antibiotic resistance reside on farms, but he has not yet shown proof of any linkage between human infections and animal medicines.
Angulo co-authored an article in a recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine about a boy in Nebraska infected with antibiotic- resistant salmonella because the calves on his family's farm had been dosed with an antibiotic.
The CDC duly announced "to the extent this could become widespread, it poses a serious problem." The Washington Post said farm use of antibiotics may be "reducing the ability of similar antibiotics to cure humans of infections."
But the linkage is apparently false. He says it was established using DNA typing. But the DNA bands of the boy's salmonella don't totally match that of the calves. The boy's father told me he has never used the antibiotic in question on his farm or the other four farms he helps manage.
The father also said no outside animals had been added to his herd for eight years and the boy had not visited any of the cattle farms for several weeks before his illness.
The boy's course of illness followed an emergency appendectomy. Two days later, the boy developed diarrhea, and stool samples revealed the resistant bacteria.
But that was after several days of exposure to a hospital environment rich in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Since the boy didn't ingest anything from the cattle or the farms, wouldn't the hospital be a more likely source of the infection? (The boy recovered fully.) Yet Angulo's team chose not to investigate any other possible source of the infection.
Is there a smoking gun here concerning human resistance to antibiotics emerging from farm animals? Or is it just another researcher violating the objectivity of science to promote a scare theory?
The world certainly has a problem with antibiotic resistance, but most physicians trace it to very human problems. About half the antibiotic prescriptions are given to patients who don't have bacterial ailments but believe in antibiotics.
Lots of people stop taking antibiotics when they feel better. That leaves some of the pills still in the bottle and the toughest bacteria still alive. Bacteria mutate constantly no matter what.
Why shouldn't we play it safe and ban antibiotics from agriculture just in case? For openers, it might very possibly cost us 2 million square miles of wildlife habitat.
If we didn't have veterinary antibiotics, we would probably have to start with twice as many hogs and chickens to produce today's meat supply, and we'd need another 1 million square miles of land for their outdoor housing.
Because the outdoor critters are subjected to more stress from summer heat and winter cold, 15 billion piglets and umpty-billion chicks would each need lots of extra feed and extra land to grow it.
As we are already farming 37 percent of the earth's land surface, the only place to get another 2 million square miles of land for hogs and chickens is to take it away from wildlife.
Farming is in a precarious situation. Our record-large urban population doesn't really understand how it is fed, but it cares more and more about nature and animal rights.
A few years ago, Sweden mandated chickens get a daily play period outside their cages. The resulting spread of diseases cost huge number of chickens their lives.
Farmers must help city folks understand modern farming is the most productive per acre, the most sustainable in history and the kindest to its birds and animals. It's also saving millions of square miles of wildlands from being cleared for low-yield food production. Perhaps they should start writing to urban newspapers and sending copies to Frederick Angulo at The Centers for Disease Control.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.