Playing chicken with the effectiveness of antibiotics

The news about the recent outbreak of Salmonella in Foster Farms chicken is alarming (several of the Salmonella strains involved have been linked to Foster Farms chicken). 278 people (and counting) have been sickened, and 42% of them have been hospitalized, far more than normal (which is about 20%).  The Salmonella strains involved in this outbreak are resistant to several commonly used human antibiotics which are also used in raising chickens. As the CDC has noted, this resistance to antibiotics can increase the risk of hospitalization and make illnesses harder to treat, as it has in the context of previous outbreaks of foodborne bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics.

Just a few weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put out a report warning about the risks of antibiotic resistance,  pointing out that the use of antibiotics in livestock is contributing to the problem, and saying that “much of antibiotic use in animals in unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.” Here’s another unfortunate reminder of the potential consequences of inappropriate use of antibiotics in raising livestock.

Today, about 80% of all antibiotics sold in the US are for use in livestock; most of that use is for speeding up animal growth and making up for poor conditions, not to treat sick animals. These kinds of uses involves feeding animals antibiotics day after day at low doses (without a prescription), a practice that is especially likely to lead to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria—a lot like not finishing the course of antibiotics your physician prescribes. These antibiotic resistant bacteria, or superbugs, can then travel off the farm in soil, air, and water; on workers working with animals or meat; and on the meat; and the bacteria can even spread their resistance to other bacteria. Which means that the resistant bacteria fostered in a livestock setting can affect the effectiveness of essential drugs that we humans rely on.

In an example of the denialism on this issue we have often seen from the meat industry, Foster Farms put out a statement that “consumers should know that the frontline antibiotics used to treat salmonella are fully effective in treating the illness.” As Rep. Slaughter (D-NY), a microbiologist, firmly pointed out, “They have no ground to stand on to make that statement.” Salmonella samples isolated from Foster Farms chicken have been found to be resistant to one or more of several different antibiotics that are used in raising chickens and are also commonly used in human medicine. A previous Salmonella outbreak associated with Foster Farms chicken also involved some antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

This is yet another call to action for the Food and Drug Administration to stop its 40-year old pattern of dragging its heels and to take meaningful action. FDA’s response to the problem of antibiotic resistance has been to propose a loophole-laden set of voluntary recommendations for industry that industry is free to ignore. FDA should move swiftly to impose mandatory restrictions on the improper use of antibiotics for speeding up animal growth and as a crutch for better management practices. The longer FDA waits before it takes real action, the greater the threat these miracle drugs of modern science will become ineffective sooner.

Image courtesy Lief K-Brooks, via Flickr