The growing global trend of feeding farm animals antibiotics to boost their growth is creating a new class of hard-to-treat super bugs, according to a recent study.
Findings published in the Proceedings Of The National Academy of Sciences journal last week warned that rampant use of antibiotics in cattle, pigs, and chickens is spawning new, drug-resistant "super bugs" that put consumers at risk.
This isn't a small problem. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were sold for use on U.S. farms in 2009. To put that in perspective, only 7.7 million pounds of antibiotics were used to treat humans in the U.S.
Currently, large-scale industrial farms in the U.S. use aproximately 300 milligrams of antibiotics in each kilogram of meat — that's about six times the amount Denmark, the global leader in pork exports, uses, according to Pew.
The study, a combined work from from Princeton University, the International Livestock Research Institute and the National Institutes of Health, warned that antibiotic-fed livestock could swiftly become a major global health issue. Tim Robinson, a co-author on the study and scientist with the International Livestock Research Institute, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the low doses of antibiotics used in livestock create "perfect conditions" for bacteria.
Robinson said that E. coli and salmonella are already becoming resistant to antibiotics, which makes them more difficult for doctors to treat and consequently more dangerous to humans.
The study's authors say the solution lies in greater oversight of the use of antibiotics and antimicrobials in livestock and "the ultimate phasing out of antimicrobial use for growth promotion."
But the current trend isn't promising. The study projects that global antibiotic use in livestock will rise by 67 percent by 2030. In developing countries, this increase is even sharper—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa could see a 99 percent jump in antibiotic use.
Consumers can do their part to reduce the prevalence of antibiotics in meat by shopping for USDA-certified organic meats, since any animal product given the certified organic seal must be raised without antibiotics.
Photo credit: Dave Young