In humans, antibiotics treat many infections caused by bacteria, everything from food poisoning to pneumonia to the latest threat of anthrax. Antibiotics also are crucial to the treatment of infections that can complicate medical procedures such as surgery, cancer treatment and transplants. But a federal task force says that resistance to antibiotics is "a growing menace to all people." It also warned that drug choices for the treatment of common infections will become increasingly limited and expensive. The reason? To at least one group of physicians, scientists and consumers, it's the rampant and excessive use of antibiotics in the livestock industry.
The coalition issued a dire warning about the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock feed, saying the inappropriate use of the drugs in farm animals is leading to dangerous levels of antibiotic resistance in humans. A number of antibiotics used in agriculture, like tetracycline and penicillin, are identical or very similar to antibiotics used in human medical treatment. One example cited by the group is Baytril, an antibiotic fed to sick poultry which is similar in nature to Cipro, the current human remedy for anthrax. Karen Florini: "Livestock and poultry producers unnecessarily feed antibiotics to healthy farm animals to promote growth and to compensate for unsanitary growing conditions found in industrial animal agriculture facilities." One of the coalition's members, the Union of Concerned Scientists, estimates that 70 percent of the antibiotics fed to livestock in the United States goes to healthy animals. That's about 24 million pounds a year. The practice is used to promote growth and to prevent disease in large-scale, industrial animal production. Antibiotics work by targeting specific areas of a bacteria's structure for destruction. But bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics, especially when given in small, steady doses, as it is in livestock feed. The stronger, more resistant bacteria survive and evolve new defense mechanisms in a rapid process that renders the antibiotics useless or less effective. Dr. Tamar Barlam: "If you have an antibiotic-resistant infection, you can certainly have an illness that lasts longer. You can have more symptoms and become more ill. And, in fact, you can die of the infection because the available antibiotics may not be as effective as the original ones that we had to treat them." The antimicrobial resistance reaches humans through consumption of meat from animals which have eaten feed laced with antibiotics ... through contact with livestock industry line workers exposed to such animals ... or perhaps through some of the two trillion pounds of animal waste generated by the industry every year.