Is that MRSA in your porkchop?

 

I've not written much about antibiotic use (or overuse) in livestock facilities. It always seemed like one of those perennial important-yet-not-going-anywhere topics where a group of concerned scientists write research-based, impassioned letters to the federal Food and Drug Administration listing all the potential consequences, but the agency never takes action.

Which is not to say the exceedingly high use of antibiotics in livestock facilities (as much as 70 percent of the total antibiotics in the United States goes to livestock) is not problematic. It is.

Evidence that antibiotic-resistant bacteria gets from live animals into the meat most Americans eat keeps piling up: In January, scientists sampled 395 cuts of pork from 36 stores in three states. Twenty-six of these harbored methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria; similar percentages of MRSA, as it is called, have been found in other studies sampling grocery store meat products. Just last week, researchers looking at antibiotic resistance in soil bacteria found that agricultural soils amended with manure from animals treated with antibiotics contained bacteria with a much higher level of antibiotic resistance than the bacteria found in non-amended soils.

As far back as 1977, the FDA was concerned about the impacts of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from feedlot animals, but despite being required by law to take action on this concern, it never did. And while study after study has piled up over the years, each showing an increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria, in many cases spreading from animals to humans, the FDA has sat on its hands. In fact, just this December, it stopped its process (began in 1977 but never completed) to withdraw the antibiotics penicillin and tetracyclines from what's called "non-therapeutic" livestock use, which basically means the antibiotics are fed to livestock whether they are sick or not, as a preventative measure and to promote their growth.

But just last week, a federal judge ruled the FDA has to hold hearings on the safety of antibiotic use in livestock and then make a decision on withdrawing them. In its December decision, FDA had said instead it planned to focus on industry-supported "voluntary" measures, to curb antibiotic overuse. The judge said that wasn't enough.

"The ruling compels FDA to take action on its own safety findings by withdrawing approval for most non-therapeutic uses of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed, unless the industry can prove in public hearings that those drug uses are safe," the Natural Resources Defense Council, which was part of a coalition that sued the FDA, wrote in a press release.

Now that this ruling has been handed down, it looks like FDA will be required to hold hearings where the pharmaceutical industry will be forced to defend the use of this "growth promoter" antibiotic use and prove it is not dangerous to humans. The hearing schedule has not been pinned down yet, and will be worked out between the coalition that sued FDA and the agency.

When the hearings take place, it seems as if the antibiotics manufacturers will be hard pressed to defend the position that non-therapeutic use does not pose risks to humans. As the excellent Wired "Superbug" blogger Maryn McKenna, who has covered the issue of antibiotic resistant bacteria extensively, writes:

"A good portion of the scientific evidence, though not all, supports the contention that growth promoter antibiotic use encourages the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that move off the farm to create antibiotic-resistant illness elsewhere."

It's not rocket science that when animals in close quarters are administered exceedingly high levels of antibiotics, the bacteria living in those systems quickly evolve to be resistant to such bacteria. Nor is it a giant scientific leap to hypothesize, and then prove, that those resistant bacteria get into the animals' meat and their manure, and then sometimes into humans, where treatment options become increasingly limited due to the drug resistance of those bacteria.

It's a little encouraging to know that, after 35 years of inaction by the agency in charge of protecting consumers from these dangers, the body of scientific research on antibiotic-resistant bacteria spreading from feedlots to humans will be aired in front of the public. While curbing the use of antibiotics won't fix all the problems inherent in the factory farm system, it will at least shine a light on that system, and perhaps improve one harmful aspect of it. Here's hoping.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.

Image of pork chops courtesy Flickr user Artizone.

Image of a flesh eating, antibiotic resistant methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus staph infection (and there are many worse photos out there) courtesy Flickr user Herbie Robinson.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]