As of today, 633,000 deaths have been deemed as a result of a COVID-19 infection. Antibiotic resistance poses a much larger threat, with experts predicting will kill 10 million people each year by 2050. Though most of the discussion on preventing the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria revolve around preventing prescriptions when not needed and the correct use of the drugs amongst patients, something important is missed.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “in some countries the total amount of antibiotics used in animals is 4 times larger than the amount used in humans.”, and a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report stated that a staggering 80% of the antibiotics sold in the USA go to animal farms“.
The animal agricultural industry is the largest consumer of antibiotics, not human healthcare. In this blog post I hope to explain:
- Why animals are fed antibiotics
- Why this can lead to antibiotic-resistance in humans
- The solutions
Why Animals Are Fed Antibiotics
In most cases, animals are not fed antibiotics when they are sick. They are used to prevent infections which could inhibit growth. Animals are kept in extreme and unsanitary conditions with a large number of animals per square metre, making it very easy for pathogens to grow and spread to one another – these animals are in no way following the social distancing guidelines!
They are kept like this so it is cheaper for the farmers (and so eventually the consumer) to produce a certain amount of meat/dairy/eggs, and the limited movement enables more energy to go towards growth (to produce fatter animals with less food). But farmers try to prevent the outbreak of an infection by routinely giving livestock antibiotics in their feed.
As the antibiotics are given to the animals routinely, and not exclusively when they are infected, the process of bacteria becoming multi-resistant is allowed to thrive. Normal genetic variation is present amongst a population of bacteria, with some having mutations which give them a survival advantage over the others in the presence of an antibiotic. These resistant bacteria survive, reproduce, and can transfer their advantageous mutations via plasmid exchange within the bacterial community. This results in a large population of bacteria which are all resistant to an antibiotic, rendering the antibiotic useless when trying to fight the infection.
Why This Can Lead to Antibiotic Resistance In Humans
These bacteria survive even when the animal is eventually killed, and so can end up in your kitchen fridge. The most common pathogens found in beef, pork and chicken include Escherichia coli (E. coli), salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus).
Although these pathogenic microorganism should be killed when heated to the correct temperature, it is very easy for cross-contamination between cooked and raw foods to allow these pathogens to stay on your food. Furthermore, the spores of some pathogenic bacteria, such as Clostridium perfringens are not easily destroyed during cooking. The heat of cooking can activate these spores to germinate and develop into mature bacteria if the food is kept at a warm temperature for a prolonged period of time.
When S. aureus is allowed to grow in foods, it can produce a toxin that causes illness. Although cooking does kill the bacteria, the toxin produced is heat stable and may not be destroyed. It is this toxin that then produces the illness in humans after the consumption of the food.
Farmed fish is also a huge culprit. Because of fishing (not overfishing, just fishing full-stop), scientists predict all seafood will be absent from our oceans by 2048. This, along with the pressure to cheaply produce mass amounts of fish, fish farms now surpass wild fisheries as the main provider of seafood fed to humans. As with animal farms, these fish are kept in close contact with one another and in the same vessel of dirty water, creating the need for antibiotics to prevent infection. A report found that “hotspots of antibiotic use in fish farming accelerate antimicrobial resistance”, leading the FDA to deny entry to 26 shipments of Indian shrimp, after detecting banned antibiotics in January 2019.
Yes, it is important to monitor and control the administration and use of antibiotics in humans by ensuring doctors do not prescribe when not needed and for patients to complete their course, but most people do not take a course of antibiotics that often. But most people do consume animal products at least 3 times a day.
With every mouthful of an animal-product containing food, we are increasing the risk of consuming the microorganisms or heat-stable toxins which cause disease, but also pathogens that are resistant to the antibiotics you’d rely on to fight the infection.
Our consumption of animals is driving the biggest threat to human health for our planet right now, and when it is easier than ever to take animals off our plates, we are stupidly driving ourselves to a place where a simple dental procedure or simple trip to the GP could kill us. The discovery of antibiotics continues to hold the basis for many more recent medical discoveries, with antibiotics crucial for safe chemotherapy and surgery. The most important medication we have in the world is being squandered just to keep animals alive long enough for them to be fattened up and slaughtered, for the sake of eating hamburgers and ice cream which is creating even more disease. It makes no sense.
By removing animals and their products (milk, cheese, eggs etc.) from our diets, we are doing a lot to prevent this problem from ruining our entire human existence.
As long as we keep demanding to eat animals, animals will be farmed in this way (there is not enough space on our planet to farm socially distanced livestock – 75% of global agricultural land is already being used for animals (whether occupied by the animals themselves, or for growing crops for animal feed) – and the added costs from better sanitary conditions would mean animal products would be too expensive). Even if we create new antibiotics in the future, this cycle will repeat indefinitely unless we stop farming animals the way we do now.
Antibiotics are used to control bacterial infections in plant crops too, but these account for less than 0.5% of total antibiotic use. Opting for plant-based foods would be doing good to you, and the rest of the population.
What To Read Next
Want to Learn more about the environmental implications of agricultural land for animals compared to plants?
Interested about the link between animal agriculture and disease?
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