Nature's Take on Antibiotic Resistance and Some Troubling Responses

Last week, the prominent scientific journal, Nature, published a series of editorials and articles about antibiotic resistance. There were several statements of note for us here at NRDC.

Of particular interest was the editorial’s support for restrictions on the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. The accompanying articles also outlined some of the new research demonstrating the link between animal agriculture and antibiotic resistance in humans, as my colleague, Jonathan Kaplan, highlights here.

But I want to focus on something slightly different: the meat and pharmaceutical industries and their supporters’ approach to the crisis confronting us that is rendering essential medicines ineffective and putting us on the path to an era when commonplace infections can once again be life-threatening. In particular, I want to point out three statements in one of the Nature pieces.

First, a representative from the Animal Health Institute, a pharmaceutical industry trade group, says, “There's a long way between the farm and the table,” to argue that animal use of antibiotics is not a matter of concern. Except that the meat industry makes that trip every day in millions of homes in America. But, to me, it’s an especially troubling response

  • when studies show that animals raised with the routine use of antibiotics carry higher levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria than those that don’t;
  • when studies show that bacteria antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been found in waterways, soil, and manure near or at livestock facilities that routinely add antibiotics to animal feed;
  • when workers working with animals at livestock facilities that routinely add antibiotics to animal feed carry higher levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria of livestock origin;
  • and when bacteria can share genetic traits conferring resistance to antibiotics with other species of bacteria, including transfers from harmless bacteria to disease-causing bacteria.

Second, Scott Hurd, an industry-aligned researcher, claims that there is little risk from such use, as he has done before even in the face of the overwhelming scientific consensus that the routine use of antibiotics in animal feed is a dangerous practice that must stop. His work looked at one subset of the ways in which such use endangers human health—foodborne illness—and did not take into account the risks from the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria through air, water, soil, manure, workers, and the genetic exchange of resistance between bacteria. More importantly, his assessment runs counter to the assessment of the major medical and scientific groups to consider the issue. Here’s a smattering of the groups that disagree with Hurd: the American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the American Society of Microbiology . . . the list goes on. I, for one, put my faith in these groups.

Finally, a veterinarian and farm manager quoted in one of the Nature articles, looks at the animals he is working with, which have mucus running from their snouts, and says, “It's just like when you bring kids to a day-care centre . . . After a while, they're going to come home with a snotty nose.” Except, when was the last time you heard of a day-care that mixes antibiotics into the kids’ cereal every morning. That’s exactly what is going on these livestock facilities where antibiotic use is a daily practice, and that’s exactly why we shouldn’t accept self-serving justifications for putting all our health at risk in the search for greater profits.