So maybe this isn't the best subject to bring up less than a week after a holiday that is pretty much all about eating. On the other hand, if it triggers a constructive discussion, maybe it'll be one more reason to give thanks.
I got a call after my recent blog post about the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The blog cited experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as scientists at global medical organizations, warning that resistant bacteria are spreading much faster than new antibiotics can be developed. If hospitals and the rest of the health care community don't dramatically slow their spread while new drugs can be found, they cautioned, we'll face the same situation we were in before antibiotics became widely available in the 1940s — uncontrollable and dangerous bacteria.
The caller, who said she's a hospital nutritionist in the Southeast, scolded me for not mentioning a tactic she claims hospitals can use on top of those discussed in an H&HN Daily podcast with Steve Solomon, M.D., director of the Office of Antimicrobial Resistance at the CDC. Hospitals, the caller said, should refuse to serve patients, staff and visitors beef, pork, chicken and, yes, turkey, from animals that have been fed antibiotics.
"We know, through many years of scientific research that the antibiotics in animals are passed on to humans who consume meat. And that makes those humans more apt to be immune to the antibiotics," she said.
The caller is not alone in her concerns. The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future released a report in October noting that, based on data from the Food and Drug Administration, 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were sold for use in meat and poultry production in 2011. That's 80 percent of the total volume of antibiotics sold in the United States for any purpose.
"Effects from these drugs … can reach far beyond their direct administration to food animals," the report states. For example, animal byproducts are used in feed additives in livestock, "causing the drugs to be recycled back into food production."
Moreover, "antibiotic-resistant bacteria easily migrate from animal production sites into the air, water and soils surrounding" the so-called industrial farms. And workers, animal transport trucks and undomesticated animals such as rats, birds of prey and flies have been shown to carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria and "are capable of transporting bacteria off the farm site."
The Hopkins report is a follow-up to a 2008 report by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which recommended, among other things, that "the nontherapeutic use of antimicrobials in farm animals be phased out and eventually banned." So far, the federal government has not taken either step.
Read the Hopkins report.