What scientists warned would happen decades ago is coming to pass.1 Antibiotic resistance has become a major threat worldwide and the primary cause of this man-made epidemic is the misuse of antibiotics.2 Pharmaceutical drugs are used to combat bacterial infections in humans and animals, but over the past decades have been widely overprescribed.3
For example, viral infections cannot be treated with antibiotics,4 yet many have been prescribed antibiotics for a cold or the flu — both of which are viral.5 According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 30% of the 269 million antibiotic prescriptions written in 2017 were unnecessary.
Antibiotics are also routinely used for growth promotion in livestock and are promoted by pharmaceutical companies as a means of preventing disease in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where illnesses spread quickly.6 Unfortunately, fear is a powerful way to sway and distort reality and ultimately limit the freedom to make choices based on truth.
According to the CDC,7 “Resistant bacteria are more common in settings where antibiotics are frequently used: health care settings, the community and food animal production.” Despite the number of prescriptions written each year, the majority of antibiotics used in the U.S. are found in industrial agriculture.
In the U.S. alone, antibiotic-resistant pathogens conservatively cause 2 million infections annually and lead to 23,000 deaths each year.8 The rise in pan-resistance (resistance to multiple drugs) has increased use of carbapenems, an antibiotic of last resort. Alarmingly, carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae are rapidly becoming more common in hospitals.9
Despite these statistics, and the knowledge that overuse of antibiotics in animal production is one of the largest driving forces behind antibiotic-resistant bacteria, pharmaceutical companies continue to push livestock production facilities to use antibiotics to prevent “Pig Zero.”10
Farmers swayed by threat of ‘Pig Zero’
Recognizing that overuse and misuse of antibiotics contributes to the rising threat in drug-resistant infections, in 2017 the World Health Organization issued recommendations to farmers and the food industry to:11
“[S]top using antibiotics routinely to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals. The new WHO recommendations aim to help preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics that are important for human medicine by reducing their unnecessary use in animals.
In some countries, approximately 80% of total consumption of medically important antibiotics is in the animal sector, largely for growth promotion in healthy animals.”
In the pork Industries trade show held in Des Moines, Iowa, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies producing drugs for livestock was promoting the opposite message. Posters and brochures warned farmers, “Don’t wait for Pig Zero,”12 referencing a commonly used term in human medicine — “Patient Zero” — the person identified as the first carrier of an infectious disease.
The drugmaker Elanco encouraged farmers to use antibiotics for their herd as a preventative measure, rather than treating a disease outbreak. For industrial farmers, fearful of losing an entire herd in crowded, germ-prone conditions, it’s an appealing idea. The pamphlets detailed how a daily regimen of antibiotics may increase profit as pigs grew heavier and farmers had more meat to sell.13
Elanco is a small spin-off from the larger parent company, Eli Lilly.14 The company is in the midst of developing antibiotic alternatives for animals, such as vaccines and enzymes.15 However, they continue to promote antibiotics in exactly the way global health officials are trying to curb.
Aggressive use of antibiotics in livestock is a primary driving force of antibiotic-resistance. However, Elanco is not alone. For example, rival Zoetis promotes the use of antibiotics to boost weight gain in cattle.16
Dr. Gail Hansen, former state health veterinarian and epidemiologist, equated the problem to climate change, commenting to The New York Times,17 “The reality is that antibiotics and large-scale industrial farming really grew up together. By the time people understand and believe it, it may be too late.”
CAFOs breed antibiotic resistance in livestock
Once The New York Times began asking questions, Elanco decided to switch gears and stop marketing Pig Zero. Shabbir Simjee, Elanco’s chief medical officer told The New York Times18 the antibiotics in the Pig Zero campaign would not be administered without animals showing clinical signs of illness.
He compared the program to a child at a day care center and said, “If one child gets sniffles, you usually find that the whole class ends up with a cold, and this is exactly the same principle.” However, as The New York Times19 so aptly pointed out, the children almost certainly would not be treated with preventive antibiotics and many scientists believe livestock should not be treated this way either.
Gastropod reports that, historically, antibiotics use began in poultry in 1948 when experiments showed the addition increased the growth of chickens 2.5 times faster than those eating a standard diet.20
The news quickly spread, and within a few short years, American farmers were feeding half a million pounds of antibiotics a year to their animals. Scientific American reported one terrifying downside to this practice:21
"Antibiotics seem to be transforming innocent farm animals into disease factories. Recent research shows that segments of DNA conferring drug resistance can jump between different species and strains of bacteria with disturbing ease, an alarming discovery. By simply driving behind chicken transport trucks, scientists collected drug-resistant microbes from the air within their cars.”22
In 2013, 131,000 tons of antibiotics were used worldwide in livestock and it is anticipated this number will rise to 200,000 tons in 2030.23 A study24 found proximity to pig manure increased the chance of becoming infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and 45% of those working with pigs were colonized with MRSA, 30 times greater than the national average.
A study funded by WHO and published in The Lancet25 found if antibiotic use was reduced in food-producing animals, it would reduce the antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in animals by up to 39% and may similarly reduce the bacteria in humans.