Overuse of prescription drugs has led to a crisis as bacteria has fought back, developing a resistance to the very medicines designed to kill it. You may think you've done your part by avoiding unnecessary prescriptions. But as Katie Gibas tells us in this segment of Antibiotics: Broken Promise, you may be getting a regular dose of antibiotics and resistant bacteria at your dinner table.
It’s a long way from the pharmacy to the farm, but that’s where an estimated 80 percent of antibiotics are used. Almost since their invention, antibiotics have been prescribed for sick animals.
"Animals that don't get sick perform better," said Mike Baker, a Beef Cattle Extension Specialist.
Beef Cattle Specialist Mike Baker says the benefits of antibiotics go past just treating illness. They also improve animal production. There are certain antibiotics in the farming industry that aren’t used in humans at all.
"Better digestion. We can have a higher level of production with less amount of feed. Less amount of feed means less amount of land that has to go into animal production and so on," said Baker.
But there has been a history of giving antibiotics to animals that aren’t sick. Especially at larger operations out West, animals are often fed a low dose of antibiotics on a daily basis.
And many argue it’s doing more harm than good.
"When you're giving low levels of antibiotics, not enough to kill the bacteria, what you're doing is really setting up the perfect way for bacteria to become resistant to the antibiotics that are being given to the animals,“ said Gale Hansen, a public health veterinarian.
A prime example of the growing resistance is food products that are recalled every year.
"There was 36 million pounds of ground turkey that was recalled last year because of a bacteria called Salmonella Heidelberg, and that bacteria was resistant to several antibiotics. Those are the same antibiotics that are fed to the animals and made it much more difficult to treat the people who needed to be treated. We ended up with one person dead and over 130 people sick,” said Hansen.
The growing resistance is one reason many farmers have converted their operations to antibiotic free or organic. Kathie Arnold’s dairy farm went organic in 1996. That means the cows cannot be treated with antibiotics, hormones or many conventional medications.
"We have not missed them anywhere near as much as I thought. Number one, there are a lot of plant-based, herbal medicines and vitamins and so on that we can use," said Kathie Arnold, the owner of Twin Oaks Dairy LLC. "We are required if an animal needs to have antibiotics to save their life, then we have to treat them. But then that animal is no longer organic, and so she'd have to be removed from the farm."
Roy Smith farms chickens for egg production. He only uses antibiotics on sick animals.
"We vaccinate to build up immunities, so when they get in the laying cycle, they won't get these diseases," said Roy Smith, a Smith Quality Eggs LLC Partner.
Both Arnold and Smith say they've learned to manage their animals so they don’t get sick
"We keep all animals away from the birds. We keep everything tight. We don't allow people in with the birds or anything like that so that there's no chance of tracking in diseases and such," said Smith.
The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, or PAMPTA, would ban the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in animals. It has been proposed several times but never voted on.
While little progress has been made here in the U.S., the European Union has already outlawed the use of antibiotics for animal growth. Sweden and Denmark were the first two countries to adopt the policy and their findings show an over reduction in antibiotic use, a drop in resistant bacteria and no worsening of animal health.
“Overall, there was no decrease in production and the Danish meat production industry has remained hugely economically viable. They're work leaders for exporting pork for example and Switzerland similarly so in their poultry industry,” said James Johnson, of the Antibiotic Working Group of the Infectious Disease Society of America.
But until legislation in the U.S. catches up, experts say we as consumers can take the matter into our hands by putting our money where our mouth is.
"If consumers were to shift away from buying conventionally grown products and prefer so-called antibiotic free or organic, then it would become apparent to the producers that that's the way they need to go just to meet the customer demand,“ said Johnson.
But experts believe it will take legislation and time, to bring about a big enough change to reduce the resistant bacteria bred by animals.