It wasn’t until a pig nosed me in the backside, in a friendly way, that I mustered the courage to touch one. I had seen thousands of hogs over the past 18 hours, but I had been nervously keeping my hands to myself. This particular pig seemed to disapprove of my restraint. I scratched him on the crown of his pink, wiry-haired head. He snorted loudly.

I was in a pungent, crowded barn on a farm that raises 30,000 pigs a year in Frankfort, Ind., a sleepy farming town 45 miles northwest of Indianapolis. The farm belonged to Mike Beard, who was standing next to me. The pigs belonged not to Beard but to TDM Farms, a hog production company. Beard has a contract to raise TDM’s pigs from when they are 14 days old, just weaned from their mother’s milk, until the age of six months, when they are trucked to a processing plant and made into pork chops, sausages and tenderloins. The 40-by-200-foot barn housed 1,100 pigs. Because Beard is paid for the space he provides rather than by the number of pigs, “it’s to the company’s advantage to keep the buildings as full as they can,” he explained. At 7:30 that evening, a tractor-trailer would deliver 400 more piglets, and as soon as they got settled, Beard planned to give them TDM-approved feed containing antibiotics—a necessity if they were to stay healthy in their crowded, manure-gilded home. Antibiotics also help farm animals grow faster on less food, so their use has long been a staple of industrial farming.

But there is a terrifying downside to this practice, which was one reason I had been hesitant to touch my porcine pal. Antibiotics seem to be transforming innocent farm animals into disease factories. The animals become sources of deadly microorganisms, such as the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacterium, which is resistant to several major classes of antibiotics and has become a real problem in hospitals. The drugs may work on farms at first, but a few microbes with the genes to resist them can survive and pass this ability to fight off the drugs to a larger group. 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. Early this year scientists discovered that a gene coding for resistance to a last-resort antibiotic has been circulating in the U.S. and was in bacteria infecting a woman in Pennsylvania.

Many researchers worry—and the new findings add fresh urgency to their concerns—that the abundant use of antibiotics on farms is unraveling our ability to cure bacterial infections. This latest research, scientists now say, shows resistance to drugs can spread more widely than previously thought and firms up links in the resistance chain leading from animal farm to human table. In 2014 pharmaceutical companies sold nearly 21 million pounds of medically important antibiotics for use in food animals, more than three times the amount sold for use in people. Stripped of the power of protective drugs, today’s pedestrian health nuisances—ear infections, cuts, bronchitis—will become tomorrow’s potential death sentences.

Yet the farm industry argues these worries have been wildly overblown. The idea that antibiotics “in animals directly relates to a risk to human health, we believe, has been greatly exaggerated,” says Richard Carnevale, vice president of regulatory, scientific and international affairs at the Animal Health Institute, a trade group that represents veterinary pharmaceutical companies. Researchers have not directly shown that farm antibiotic use is sparking more resistant infections in people, he and other industry representatives point out. Many of the drug-resistant infections circulating in today’s hospitals have never been linked to farms or animal meat.

Scientists now counter that the farm industry is the one exaggerating—even engineering—scientific uncertainty to protect their interests. “Frankly, it reminds me of the tobacco industry, the asbestos industry and the oil industry,” says James Johnson, an infectious disease physician at the University of Minnesota who studies antibiotic-resistant pathogens. “We have a long history of industries subverting public health.” He and other researchers admit that it is difficult to connect all the dots, but the farm industry, they say, deliberately makes it harder. Some big meat companies instruct their farmers to keep researchers away, arguing they need to keep animals free of outsiders and their diseases, which makes it impossible for scientists to solidify the science. As Tara Smith, an epidemiologist who studies emerging infections at Kent State University, tells me, the companies “want us to prove all these steps, but they’re really tying our hands.”… Read More>>

Source: Scientific American