THE XX FILES: Antibiotics use in farm animals persists

Raquel Ronzone

If something is dirty, you clean it. Socks, mirrors and ground beef — douse with some ammonia, and you’ll have brighter whites, a glassy shine or a reduced incidence of E. coli 0157:H7, as a Beef Products Inc. executive flatly explained in “Food Inc.”

Concerned, as many of us are, about the presence of E. Coli in food, the company decided to be proactive, adding ammonia – the key ingredient of Windex and a potential agent for chemical terrorism, according to the Center for Disease Control — to its hamburger filler product, which, the executive claimed, ends up in 70 percent of hamburgers in the United States.

Perhaps the company’s decision to rinse beef with ammonia is not routine. But the practice of giving antibiotics to animals raised for consumption is very much an industry standard, designed — as the ammonia treatment is — to ensure a “clean,” profitable product.

With the rise of investigative journalism and documentaries exploring food production, we have gained a more transparent look at the system — flaws and all — in much the same way that Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” forced a 20th-century America to confront the ugly effects of industrialized meatpacking.But, with antibiotics involved, there is more at stake this time.

Since their discovery and refinement, antibiotics have enjoyed a lofty status as a magic cure-all, a lifesaver, a miracle drug — especially after the widespread use of penicillin in World War II.

Now, we put these substances to work on factory farms. According to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, 70 percent of antibiotics in the United States is given to healthy animals, supposedly to prevent the sicknesses that result from living in waste-infested conditions, eating unnatural diets and suffering from poor ventilation and lack of exercise.

The logic behind this practice is flawed. Antibiotics are not preventative measures. Taking them unnecessarily increases animals’ resistance to the drugs — and by consuming the meat and by-products of these animals, we, too, are making our bodies immune to antibiotics’ effectiveness and vulnerable to the same complications of antibiotic overuse, mainly the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

That’s why MRSA (a staph infection) outbreaks in recent years were so intimidating and so fatal; we could not stop them, not even with our revered antibiotics.

The anxious chatter over MRSA has quieted, not because the infection is harmless — each year, it kills more Americans than AIDS does — and certainly not because it has been eradicated — researchers at Johns Hopkins found that more kids are coming in with it – but because another bug, Clostridium difficile, could surpass it.

Nationwide statistics are unknown, but in a study of 28 hospitals in the Southeast, C. diff. was 25 percent more common than MRSA, according to a researcher at Duke University.

And over 90 percent of C. diff. cases happen after antibiotic use. It is not clear whether that statistic refers only to antibiotics knowingly ingested through pills or if it takes into account antibiotics unknowingly consumed through animal products and byproducts.

But it isn’t a stretch to hold our antibiotic-laden meat, eggs and dairy at least partially responsible for the severely dehydrating and sometimes-fatal C. diff. infection.

Indeed, studies conducted in Europe showed a relationship between animals who were consuming antibiotic feed every day and people who were developing antibiotic-resistant infections from handling or eating that meat.

Those studies were launched 12 years ago and led to a Danish experiment to stop disproportionate antibiotic use in animals. The countrywide experiment became a continent-wide practice. Later, in 2006, all European farmers opted for a more judicious use of antibiotics, administering them only to sick animals.

With the possible exception of smaller, locally-owned, more mindful or strictly organic farms, American farmers haven’t curbed their administration of antibiotics to animals.

Our food is making us unhealthy — not just by spurring the often and justifiably cited obesity problem — but also by making us more susceptible to C. diff. and similar antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

At what point will we become outraged  by the antibiotics routinely but unnecessarily put into our foods and potentially making us vulnerable to illnesses? Executives in the industry believe that they are preemptively attacking problems  — sick animals, contaminated food — with humankind’s landmark scientific achievement — antibiotics. In reality, they are causing the problems in the first place — because of the prevalence of factory farming — and are putting our health at risk with their perceived solution.

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Raquel Ronzone is a junior communication major from Philadelphia.  She can be reached at [email protected]