A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Animal Antibiotic Alert

U.S. Government now worried about factory farms

Last year, it was swine flu. Before that, bird flu. Just a few weeks ago, the egg recall. Then WalMart’s recall of 380,000 pounds of deli meat because of possible contamination with Listeria monocytogenes, which can cause listeriosis, a potentially deadly disease.

When are people going to realize that factory farms are killing us?

Now, after decades of debate and prevarication, the Food and Drug Administration may be about to step in on the factory farm practice that currently has doctors most worried: the antibiotics that are pumped into the animals as part of their daily diet.

In a July 2010 letter to Congress, Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, warns of “a compelling body of evidence … a clear link between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.” Very simply, as more antibiotics are used in factory farms, so more drug-resistant strains of bacteria evolve, and these are passed along to humans in the meat we buy.”

Studies of drug-resistant E. coli found in the meat that’s being sold in grocery stores has been found to be identical to strains of drug-resistant bacteria in sick patients – many of them suffering from serious blood and brain infections.

In the following report on the CBS Evening News, farmer Russell Kremer tells he nearly died from a drug-resistant strain of strep after being gored by a boar who had been being fed penicillin daily. (And this was on a free-range farm. The conditions in a factory farm are far more dangerous.)

Why the animals are stuffed with antibiotics. (Hint: It’s profitable!)

So, why are so many antibiotics being fed to animals at factory farms? It’s not even just to ward off the growing menace of rampant infection; it’s because antibiotics make the animals grow faster. So while people are getting sicker, these businesses are getting richer.

In a recent survey, more than 70 percent of farm workers admitted to CBS News that they were feeding antibiotics to baby pigs to promote fast growth, and without consulting a veterinarian.

“Mother nature will have the last word. Mad cow disease was a warning. Swine flu was a warning. MRSA was a warning. The egg recall was a warning.”

The FDA has already put out guidelines urging the meat industry to stop this use of antibiotics. In a July statement, the FDA wrote: “The development of resistance to this important class of drugs, and the resulting loss of their effectiveness as antimicrobial therapies, poses a serious public health threat.”

“The writing is on the wall,” notes Brad Spellberg, author of Rising Plague, a book about super bacteria. “We’re in an era where antibiotic resistance is out of control, and we’re running out of drugs and new drugs are not being developed. We can’t continue along the path we’re on.”

Skin rashes in Arkansas

In 2007, dozens of workers at an Arkansas factory farm became infected with mysterious, painful skin rashes.

“They hurt real bad,” Joyce Long, a 32-year veteran of the facility, told MSNBC, “When we went and got cultured, doctors told us we had a superbug.”

The superbug was MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. According to the CDC, certain types of MRSA infections kill 18,000 Americans a year — more than die from AIDS.

At a nearby processing plant, other workers were soon being infected with rashes and lumps, too. One employee went to the hospital with a painful lump on her thigh that she thought was a spider bite. Her husband caught it, too. When a swelling rose over one of his eyes, he was told he might go blind, and that if the infection progressed to his brain, he’d die.

Scientists at Louisiana State University Agricultural Center tested 120 cuts of locally purchased meat and found MRSA in 4 percent of the pork and 1 percent of the beef. That may not sound like a lot, but because of the way meat is processed, a single hamburger can have meat from literally dozens of different cows, boosting the risk of infection enormously.

And earlier this year, researchers said China’s excessive use of antibiotics in its factory farms is becoming a major cause of superbug growth in the food chain.

The factory farms fight back

Will the FDA’s guidelines become law? Not if the meat industry can help it. According to the National Pork Producers Council, in its response to the FDA, “There is no scientific study linking antibiotic food use in good animals with antibiotic resistance.”

But animals at factory farms have been identified as the most likely sources of dangerous, drug-resistant bacteria. “For those of us in the public health community, the evidence is unambiguously clear,” Dr. Johnson told The New York Times. “Most of the E. coli resistance in humans can be traced to food-animal sources.”

To anyone who has followed the behavior of the tobacco industry over the years, the parallels are obvious. Back in the 1950s, people were being taught that smoking was actually good for you – that it helped you breathe deeper, for example. Even in the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter still couldn’t come out strongly against smoking; he could only talk about making it “even safer.”

Today’s agribusiness is a bigger entity by far than the tobacco industry: the lobby is stronger, the subsidies more massive, and the health hazards to humans much greater.

The simple fact: Factory farms are institutionalized cruelty to animals

Health hazards aside, the biggest difference between tobacco farms and factory farms for all of us who care about animals is very simple: Factory farming is the single worst form of institutionalized cruelty to animals anywhere on the planet.

And now the effects are coming back to bite us, as they inevitably must.

“Ultimately,” says David Kirby, author of the well-reviewed book Animal Factory, “when you cram thousands of animals into a single confined space without access to fresh air, outdoor sunlight, pasture, natural animal behaviors, you are asking for problems in the form of diseases that attack people.”

“Mother nature will have the last word. Mad cow disease was a warning. Swine flu was a warning. MRSA was a warning. The egg recall was a warning.”

Kirby notes that in Iowa many chicken farms are located very close to pig farms. “Birds and rodents and insects are moving in and out of these places. For a massive shift away from factory farming, it will probably take some new super-virus combining the killer bird flu and some killer swine flu.”

“That could happen,” he adds. “We haven’t hit the big one yet.”