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Could Coconut Oil Help Reduce Antibiotics?

It’s no secret that antibiotic resistance has become one of the greatest health threats of the 21st century. As the World Health Organization (WHO) notes, antibiotic resistance is present in every country.1

The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), which was commissioned in July 2014 by the U.K. prime minister and produced its final report in 2016, further explained that without action to curb the growing rates of antimicrobial resistance worldwide, we’re headed for an era where antibiotics stop working and “we’re cast back into the Dark Ages of medicine.”2

It’s possible that nature may ultimately come to the rescue, courtesy of naturally antibacterial substances like coconut oil, but in the meantime the situation is becoming dire, WHO notes, such that, “Some types of bacteria that cause serious infections in humans have already developed resistance to most or all of the available treatments, and there are very few promising options in the research pipeline.”3

It’s also no secret that industrial animal agriculture, i.e., confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), are a major reason why we’re in this predicament.

Eighty percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are used by industrial agriculture for purposes of growth promotion4 and preventing diseases that would otherwise make their CAFOs unviable. Low doses of antibiotics are added to feed as a matter of course, not only to stave off inevitable infectious diseases but also because they cause the animals to grow faster on less food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued guidance on agricultural antibiotics in 2013, but it didn't go anywhere near far enough.

They asked drug companies to remove indications for "feed efficiency" and "weight gain" from the labels of their antibiotic products and required veterinarians to oversee any addition of these drugs to animal feed and water. Most companies have agreed to comply with these voluntary guidelines and state they no longer use antibiotics for growth promotion purposes. Instead, they simply state they use the antibiotics for disease prevention and control, a use that is still allowed under the FDA's guidance.

WHO Steps Up, Calls for End to Antibiotics Usage in Healthy Animals

Going where the FDA did not, in November 2017 WHO called on farmers and the food industry to stop the use of antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention in healthy animals. In a breath of fresh air, WHO explained, “The new … recommendations aim to help preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics that are important for human medicine by reducing their unnecessary use in animals.”5

They cited a 2017 study published in The Lancet Planetary Health, which found reducing antibiotic use in food-producing animals reduced antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the animals by up to 39 percent, and may similarly reduce such bacteria in humans, particularly those who are directly exposed to food-producing animals.6

As it stands, the excessive use of antibiotics among CAFO animals has turned them into veritable “disease factories”7 and, in the U.S., when the FDA tests raw supermarket chicken, they routinely find antibiotic-resistant bacteria to be present.8

This isn’t only a problem in the U.S., of course, especially as other major meat producers, including those in China, Brazil and Russia, increasingly take up the antibiotic-reliant U.S. CAFO model of agriculture.9 According to WHO, use of all classes of medically important antibiotics should be reduced in food-producing animals, while their use for growth promotion and disease prevention without diagnosis should be completely restricted. They noted:

“Healthy animals should only receive antibiotics to prevent disease if it has been diagnosed in other animals in the same flock, herd, or fish population. Where possible, sick animals should be tested to determine the most effective and prudent antibiotic to treat their specific infection.

Antibiotics used in animals should be selected from those WHO has listed as being ‘least important’ to human health, and not from those classified as ‘highest priority critically important.’ These antibiotics are often the last line, or one of limited treatments, available to treat serious bacterial infections in humans.”10

Most of the CAFO industry has criticized WHO’s guidelines, and already the USDA seems to be siding with industry instead of public health.11 USDA acting chief scientist Chavonda Jacobs-Young said in a statement, “The WHO guidelines are not in alignment with U.S. policy and are not supported by sound science. The recommendations erroneously conflate disease prevention with growth promotion in animals."12

MCTs Important in Reducing Disease Transmission

The most obvious method of reducing disease transmission among food-producing animals is to convert the CAFO model to one that respects the laws of nature, raising them not in crowded, filthy feedlots and windowless buildings but instead on pasture and with access to their natural diets and the outdoors. But even among industrial producers, there are ways to prevent disease that don’t involve antibiotics.

It was previously found, for instance, that medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs), also called medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs, can help protect pigs from porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which killed about 8 million pigs in 2014.13 In a study presented at Kansas State University’s 50th Annual Swine Day, researchers further revealed that MCTs added to pig feed results in increased average daily weight gain, feed intake and feed efficiency.

Jason Woodworth, an associate professor in the department of animal sciences and industry, said in a news release, “It is … interesting to imagine the possibilities that MCFA may bring to the swine industry considering the momentum to reduce or eliminate feed grade antibiotics … MCFA could easily be one of the options that swine producers can use to improve performance in the absence of feed grade antibiotics.”14

The researchers are also testing MCTs against additional viruses, bacteria and other pathogens to determine which blends would be most effective in animal feed.

Further, since synthetic-grade fatty acids were used in the study, which are not available to pig producers, the High Plains/Midwest Journal reported, the researchers are attempting to develop MCTs that could be produced in large volumes and made easily attainable by food producers. It would be interesting to see how pure coconut oil would fare, as it’s nature’s richest source of MCFAs.