Sep 18, 2014

Antibiotics used by major poultry companies pose risks for humans, Reuters investigation finds

Tim Mandell: Major U.S., poultry companies, including Tyson FoodsPilgrim's PridePerdue FarmsGeorge's and Koch Foods, are using antibiotics at such high rates that the drugs are killing off weaker bacteria while allowing drug-resistant bacteria to flourish, posing a potential risk to human health, Brian Grow and P.J. Huffstutter report for ReutersSeven strains of Salmonella Heidelberg linked to Foster Farms have made more than 600 people ill since 2013.

Around 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to livestock, Grow and Huffstutter write. "About 390 medications containing antibiotics have been approved to treat illness, stave off disease and promote growth in farm animals. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has reviewed just 7 percent of those drugs for their likelihood of creating antibiotic-resistant superbugs, a Reuters data analysis found." 
Reuters reviewed more than 320 feed tickets from six major poultry companies during the past two years, finding that in every instance "the doses were at the low levels that scientists say are especially conducive to the growth of so-called superbugs, bacteria that gain resistance to conventional medicines used to treat people," Grow and Huffstutter write.

Two producers, George's and Koch Foods, "have administered drugs belonging to the same classes of antibiotics used to treat infections in humans," Grow and Huffstutter write. "The practice is legal. But many medical scientists deem it particularly dangerous because it runs the risk of promoting superbugs that can defeat the life-saving human antibiotics."

The poultry industry said the antibiotics pose little threat to humans, Grow and Huffstutter write. Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, told Reuters, "Several scientific, peer reviewed risk assessments demonstrate that resistance emerging in animals and transferring to humans does not happen in measurable amounts, if at all." He said using antibiotics to prevent diseases in flocks "is good, prudent veterinary medicine. . . . Prevention of the disease prevents unnecessary suffering and prevents the overuse of potentially medically important antibiotics in treatment of sick birds." 

Health authorities disagree. The "World Health Organization called antibiotic resistance 'a problem so serious it threatens the achievements of modern medicine,'" Reuters writes. The annual cost to battle antibiotic-resistant infections is estimated at $21 billion to $34 billion in the U.S., WHO said. Each year, about 430,000 people in the U.S. become ill from food-borne bacteria that resist conventional antibiotics, according to a July report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, the CDC estimates that 2 million people are sickened in the U.S. annually with infections resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die. (Read more