Get 15% Off on Holiday Sale Get 15% Off on Holiday Sitewide Sale

ADVERTISEMENT

Antibiotic-Resistant Disease Spreading Among Farm Animals

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

antibiotic resistance in pigs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Overall, 73% of the antibiotics sold globally are used in farm animals raised for food
  • From 2000 to 2018, the proportion of bacteria affecting cattle that have stopped responding to antibiotics has doubled, while the proportion of resistant bacteria affecting chicken and pigs has nearly tripled
  • The rising rates of antibiotic-resistance in farm animals pose a threat to humans, should the bacteria travel to people and also threaten the lives of livestock, including pigs, cattle and poultry
  • Industrial CAFO-style meat production is on the rise in the developing world, in many of the same areas where the researchers noted “hot spots” of antibiotic resistance, such as northeastern India, northeastern China, Iran, eastern Turkey and the south coast of Brazil
  • The highest rates of resistance were found among the most commonly used classes of antimicrobial drugs, including tetracyclines, sulfonamides and penicillins

Worldwide, most antibiotics are used not for human illness or pets, but for livestock. Overall, 73% of the antibiotics sold globally are used in farm animals raised for food, typically in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or factory farms. A serious health epidemic has emerged as a result, in the form of rising rates of antibiotic-resistant infections in animals and humans.1

The problem is becoming increasingly pronounced in low- and middle-income countries such as Asia, Africa and South America, as meat production skyrockets.

While meat production has held steady in high-income countries since 2000, raising animals for food has grown by up to 68% in Asia, 64% in Africa and 40% in South America.2 Along with the increased demand for animal protein came an increased use of antibiotics in the animals, typically to promote faster weight gain. Now, antibiotic resistance is rising in farm animals to an extent that researchers concluded:3

“Beyond potentially serious consequences for public health, the reliance on antimicrobials to meet demand for animal protein is a likely threat to the sustainability of the livestock industry, and thus to the livelihood of farmers around the world.”

Antibiotic Resistance Rising Among Pigs, Cattle and Poultry

In September 2016, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly identified the inappropriate use of antimicrobials in animals as a leading cause of rising antimicrobial resistance.4 In the journal Science, researchers further looked into global trends in antimicrobial resistance in animals in low- and middle-income countries by analyzing 901 studies.

From 2000 to 2018, the proportion of bacteria affecting cattle that have stopped responding to antibiotics has doubled, while the proportion of resistant bacteria affecting chicken and pigs has nearly tripled.5

Study author Ramanan Laxminarayan told Wired, “Everyone talks about antibiotic resistance in humans, but no one has been talking about antibiotic resistance in animals … Yet there are far more animals than humans on the planet, and they are essential for livelihoods across the developing world. If we are not able to treat sick animals, that will have a huge impact on global poverty.”6

The rising rates of antibiotic-resistance in farm animals pose a threat to humans, should the bacteria travel to people. More immediately, they could threaten the lives of livestock, including pigs, cattle and poultry.

Industrial CAFO-style meat production is on the rise in the developing world, in many of the same areas where the researchers noted “hot spots” of antibiotic resistance, such as northeastern India, northeastern China, Iran, eastern Turkey and the south coast of Brazil. What’s more, the highest rates of resistance were found among the most commonly used classes of antimicrobial drugs, including tetracyclines, sulfonamides and penicillins.

Poor Farming Practices Could Spur Superbugs

Industrial agriculture in low- and middle-income countries is plagued with the same problems found in U.S. CAFOs — overcrowding, rampant disease and the use of low quantities of antibiotics in animal feed among them. In addition, the farms operate at low margins, spending little on veterinary care or disease containment, while contaminants, including feces contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, flow off of the farms.

Speaking to Wired, microbiologist Lance Price of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University explained that the prevalence of drug resistance in farm animals could lead to the creation of virulent pathogens resistant to multiple antibiotics. Price stated:

“[I]f you use antibiotics in billions of animals around the globe, you are creating the opportunity for rare events to be no longer rare … This creates lots of possibilities for new resistance elements to emerge.”

The researchers of the featured study recommended regions facing the highest levels of antimicrobial resistance to “take immediate actions” to preserve such drugs’ efficacy, especially those antibiotics essential to human medicine, by restricting their use in animal production.

“The portfolio of antimicrobials used to raise animals for food is rapidly getting depleted, with important consequences for animal health, farmers’ livelihoods and potentially for human health,” researchers wrote in Science. They also highlighted an opportunity in regions where antibiotic resistance is just starting to emerge. Resistance could be limited in these areas, they noted, by transitioning to sustainable farming practices.7

Choosing Organic Food Is Important

One way to help stop the spread of antibiotic resistance on an individual level is to choose food grown organically or biodynamically for both you and your pets. In fact, a recent study indicates feeding antimicrobial-resistant bacteria in meat to dogs may be passed up the food chain. Fortunately, pet parents are increasingly seeking out natural, organic, non-GMO and human-grade foods that aren’t contributing to the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed and the resulting rise in antibiotic resistance.

Organic food may also be less likely to contain antibiotic-resistant pathogens. If you’re looking for pet food made from sustainably raised animals, looking for the grass fed label makes sense. When shopping for grass fed beef, look for the American Grassfed (AGA) label. Healthy, sustainably raised and antibiotic-free meats can also often be found at local farmers markets or food co-ops.

Farms raising true grass fed beef and free range chickens typically use sustainable agriculture practices that are both ethical and environmentally friendly. If you can’t find a commercial pet food that offers these commitments, consider making your pet’s food yourself.

This way, you can choose the exact ingredients that go into each meal. Be sure to do your homework before taking the plunge, as it’s crucial that your homemade pet food be species-appropriate and nutritionally balanced. Ultimately, however, this is one of the best ways to ensure your pet gets healthy food while supporting farmers who are not contributing to the global rise in antibiotic resistance.