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Why Are There Still so Many Antibiotics in America's Meat?

For Related Articles and More Information, Please Visit OCA's Food Safety Research Center Page and our CAFO's vs. Free Range Page.

It's the stench, a pungent mix of ammonia and wet earth, that gives it away. This neat row of brick buildings in the Dutch village of Bergeijk is a massive chicken farm. Inside the six barns are 175,000 birds, hidden from the neighbors' view and without any access to the outdoors or even natural light. To see them, visitors must slip into sterile blue jumpsuits and plastic booties, a low-tech but effective type of biosecurity that stops people from sneaking in any dangerous bacteria-or taking anything out.

Precautions are especially important now, but not because the flock of birds looks sick or particularly unhappy. New government rules have forced farmers like Kees Koolen to cut their use of antibiotics, which for decades has served as a cheap and easy way to keep birds healthy and plump for their short, 6-week lives. Koolen, a 55-year-old with a round face, ruddy cheeks, and pale blue eyes, has been raising meat birds, or "broilers," for 30 years, and he wasn't keen on the idea of giving up his wonder drugs. But in just 3 years, Koolen has successfully cut the antibiotics used on his farm by 55% without making any substantial changes to production. Opposing the new rules would have been pointless, he says: "That's passé in the Netherlands.

Calls to curb the use of antibiotics in agriculture are growing louder the world over, with many experts concerned that we're careening toward a global public health crisis brought on by bacteria that do not respond to antibiotics. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, has said that if we don't change course, we could soon live in a world where "things as common as strep throat or a child's scratched knee could once again kill."

Antibiotic resistance has gotten so bad here in the United States that CDC director Thomas Frieden named the issue one of his top priorities for 2014. The numbers tell the story: Every year, 2 million people in the United States get infections that are resistant to antibiotics, and at least 23,000 people die as a result. Dozens of new, virulent bacteria have emerged over the years, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, which causes more than 11,000 deaths in the United States each year, and resistant strains of E. coli that can turn a run-of-the-mill urinary tract infection into a trip to the emergency room. Last month, Consumer Reports found that 97% of the 316 chicken breasts it tested were tainted with potentially harmful bacteria, and about half harbored at least one multidrug-resistant bacteria.   


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