Smarter Living: Schools

Photo:Terri Campbell

Chad Campbell may only be eleven years old and in his first year at Topsail Middle School in Hampstead, North Carolina, but this science fair veteran is challenging one of America’s most controversial industries: factory farming. Just last month Chad won first place at the State Science Fair for his project titled The Debate On Your Plate!.

With four years of science fair competitions under his belt, it’s the second time Chad has been awarded the top prize at the State Science Fair as well as the North Carolina Medical Research award at the regional level.

A proud vegetarian and animal-lover, this year Chad chose a project topic close to his heart, starting with the question: “Are there antibiotics present in the meat we purchase from local grocery stores?”.

Testing the Meat

“I've always been interested in microbiology and bacteria. I did a lot of reading and I came across all of this controversy regarding antibiotics and animal agriculture, which leads to antibiotic resistance,” Chad explains. “Groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the PEW Charitable Trust accuse the meat industry of having antibiotics in their meat while the meat industry denies it. I decided to find out for myself what is really happening.”

The sixth-grader tested 20 meat samples, all average-grade beef cuts, from 20 different grocery stores within a 60-mile radius of his home. He processed the samples at a local D.V.M.’s lab in Wilmington using a certified inspector-grade test called Premi Test that detects antibiotics and sulphonamide residues in meat. “I used a meat press to extract 250 microliters of meat juice into a test ampule,” explains Chad, which he later compared with control samples and a pH indicator. “I knew that some of the samples would have antibiotics as factory farms often don't have the best protocols,” says Chad. “However, I didn't expect 15 percent of the meat samples would test positive for antibiotics!”

The Health Concerns

Animals are fed steady doses of antibiotics in their feed and water to help them survive and grow faster in inhumane farming conditions says Avinash Kar, NRDC staff attorney and agriculture specialist. “The vast majority of antibiotics used in livestock production in the U.S. are not used on animals that are sick,” Kar explained. “Approximately 70 percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. are used to promote faster weight gain in animals and to combat the risks of infection created by unsustainable livestock practices, which cram together thousands of animals in often stressful and unsanitary conditions and give them food, such as corn, that their digestive systems were not built for.”

This sub-therapeutic routine feeding of antibiotics to farm animals increases the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can have serious public health consequences, particularly for kids like Chad, as well as the elderly and chronically ill. “When bacteria become resistant to an antibiotic also used in human medicine, antibiotics become less effective for treatment of human diseases, and in some cases cease to be effective,” says Kar. “It becomes much harder to treat a person that is infected with an antibiotic resistant bacteria.” Pneumonia, childhood ear infections, wound infections, gonorrhea, and tuberculosis are just a few of the diseases that have become increasingly difficult to treat with antibiotics. It’s estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections add about $50 billion to the cost of health care in the U.S. each year.

During his research Chad learned how farmers try to rid their animals of antibiotics before slaughter. “The reason not all of the meat samples tested positive for antibiotics is because farmers have a ten-day holding period where cows (or other farm animal) are not given any antibiotics. This holding period is meant to get the antibiotics out of the animal's system, but according to my results it doesn’t always work.”

Kar warns that people can become infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria in a number of ways: by eating improperly cooked meat produced from animals contaminated with antibiotic resistant bacteria; through the release of animal waste or water from the factory farm's operations into the soil, air and water; and by coming into contact with antibiotic resistant bacteria when working with animals on a farm.

Preventing Antibiotic Resistance

Chad argues that the only solution is for farmers to improve farming conditions and get rid of sub-therapeutic antibiotic use altogether. “I don’t think alternatives, like extending the holding period, would help deal with the problem antibiotic resistance because whatever isn't going in to your meat is going in to the environment, which is just as bad if not worse.” Chad explains that groundwater, surface water, and soil are contaminated from the nearly two trillion pounds of manure generated in the U.S. each year. This manure contains resistant bacteria, creating a huge pool of resistant genes that can transfer to bacteria and cause human disease.

Chad carefully planned his tests with the hope that his project would help people understand the importance of their food choices both for their health, society and the environment. “I thought that it would be most accurate to test something that the average consumer would buy, that way my project would be relevant for everyone. I could really open some eyes.”

Photo:Terri Campbell

And he succeeded, both in impressing the judges and creating a stir in his community. “Everyone has been asking me which stores sold the meat that tested positive for antibiotics. Some of my friends even asked me to test their lunch for antibiotics,” Chad recalls, laughing. “I’ve also had friends ask me how to become a vegetarian. I am always bringing samples of Tofurkey slices for kids to try at school.”

What Can You Do?

With his project, Chad aims to not only raise awareness about the serious health and environmental issues associated with food choices, but also change behavior by providing advice about smarter alternatives. “I make recommendations to go organic, which prohibits the sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics; it's the best place to go if you're not a vegetarian. Organic farmers don't give antibiotics to their healthy cows, which prevents the antibiotic-resistant bacteria from developing.” Organically raised chicken is also proven to have less salmonella than conventional chicken, according to a recent study published in the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, and the salmonella it does have isn’t resistant to antibiotics.

Chad also includes a copy of a new federal bill called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (H.R. 965) in his presentation. He explains that it’s currently pending in the House of Representatives and encourages people to support it by contacting their representatives.

Chad is already planning his next science fair project, once again biology-focused; though he won’t give any other hints about the topic because he wants it to be a surprise. In October Chad will also be competing in the Broadcom MASTERS National Science Fair in Washington D.C. Until then, Chad plans to continue spending his spare time snorkeling at the local Topsail beach where he enjoys seeing starfish, sea urchins, peppermint shrimp and other tropical fish. “I would like to be a marine scientist or a vet for exotic animals when I grow up,” he says excitedly.

last revised 4/19/2011

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