The Antibiotic-Food Animal-Human Health Connection: When we Feed our Food Animals Antibiotics to Make Them Grow Faster, There Will be Consequences
When 12-year-old Carlos Don went off to summer camp his mom and dad didn’t expect him to come back looking deathly pale with a 104 degree fever. Carlos had to be admitted to the ICU of Children’s Hospital near his home in Poway, in southern California, where he was diagnosed with a MRSA-driven pneumonia in both lungs. Doctors induced a coma and put Carlos on a ventilator to give his lungs a rest. He was eventually “hooked up to so many machines and had so many people surrounding him, we could barely see him,” his mother, Amber Don, wrote.
We don’t know how the MRSA got into Carlos. But he didn’t catch it at a hospital, where it typically lurks. Instead, Carlos confronted it somewhere ‘out there,’ in the environment, where bad bugs like MRSA are increasingly being found. One big reason: the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics as growth-promoters in industrial-scale food-animal farming—in essence, steroids for animals to make them grow bigger, faster—a practice that is banned in Europe.
Over 8 tons of antibiotics are fed every year to the more than 8 billion food animals in the US alone, resulting in a “massive selection” for resistant bacteria, writes Stuart Levy, MD, in The Antibiotic Paradox: How the misuse of antibiotics destroys their curative powers. With the upshot that resistant bacteria will develop in an animal within 2 – 3 days; from there it will spread to the other animals, then to the farm workers and their families, continuing outward to nearby communities, states, and even globally.
Crucially, Levy’s research team found that it doesn’t seem to matter what antibiotic is used on the food animals. Resistance will develop not just to that drug, penicillin or tetracycline, say, but to multiple drugs, as many as ten. And so when we eventually need one of those drugs to treat an infection, the drug-resistant bacteria have already been built into us through the chain of events shown in the following chart, put together by Dr. Levy’s group:
Levy’s chart illustrates something else too: Our usual rendition of nature as a “quiet environmental scene belies the extensive activity going on at the microscopic level,” writes Dr. Levy (my emphasis). “In fact, bacteria … are multiplying, metabolizing, and exchanging genes … among all participants … throughout the world, including people, animals, fish, birds, insects, and plants.”
That “extensive activity” affects all of us, as it did young Carlos Don that summer at camp. His mother, Amber, tells us the rest:
I remember him lying there on the hospital bed … He was petrified, but was trying to be so brave. I lied to my son for the first time in his life at that moment. He asked me if he was going to die, and I told him no. I told him he was going to be just fine, squeezed his hand, and gave him a kiss and told him I would see him shortly and that I loved him. He told me he loved me too. Those were the last words I ever heard my son say to me.
Pictures and memories are all I have left of him, and you can’t give those hugs or tuck those in bed at night. The day I picked up his urn from the mortuary I also picked up my daughters from school. While waiting in my car for the girls, I sat and watched my son’s friends laughing and playing around outside the school. While they were doing what normal 12-year-olds do, my son’s remains sat in a box in the back seat of my car. He should have been out there laughing and playing with them.