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Yes, Antibiotic-Resistant Bugs Can Jump from Animals to Humans

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For decades, the meat industry has denied any problem with its reliance on routine, everyday antibiotic use for the nation's chickens, cows, and pigs. But it's a bit like a drunk denying an alcohol problem while leaning on a barstool for support. Antibiotic use on livestock farms has surged in recent years-from 20 million pounds annually in 2003 to nearly 30 million pounds in 2011.

Over the same period, the entire US human population has consumed less than 8 million pounds per year, meaning that livestock farms now suck in around 80 percent of the antibiotics consumed in the United States. Meanwhile, the industry routinely churns out meat containing an array of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

As former FDA commissioner David A. Kessler recently put it in a New York Times op-ed, "rather than healing sick animals, these drugs are often fed to animals at low levels to make them grow faster and to suppress diseases that arise because they live in dangerously close quarters on top of one another's waste." And feeding antibiotics to livestock at low levels may "do the most harm," Kessler continued, because it provides a perfect incubation ground for the generation of antibiotic-resistant microbes.

The meat industry's retort to all of this is, essentially: And the problem is? The websites of the major industry trade groups-the American Meat Institute, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Producers Council-all insist current antibiotic practices are "safe." The main reason they can claim this with a straight face is that while scientists have long suspected that drug-resistant pathogens can jump from antibiotic-treated animals to humans, it's been notoriously difficult to prove. The obstacle is ethics: You wouldn't want to extract, say, antibiotic-resistant salmonella from a turkey and inject it into a person just to see what happens. The risk of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention politely calls "treatment failure," i.e., death, would be too great.


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