In the wake of the Foster Farms salmonella outbreak, which sickened more than 600 consumers this summer, Reuters set out to take a closer look at the American poultry industry. The news organization sought to determine whether chicken producers are still using massive amounts of antibiotics, and whether this practice is creating virulent superbugs like those found in many of the infected Foster Farms broilers.
The results of the investigation are in, and the news is not good. “Major U.S. poultry firms are administering antibiotics to their flocks far more pervasively than regulators realize, posing a potential risk to human health,” their report begins. “Internal records examined by Reuters reveal that some of the nation’s largest poultry producers routinely feed chickens an array of antibiotics — not just when sickness strikes, but as a standard practice over most of the birds’ lives.
“In every instance of antibiotic use identified by Reuters, 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. Some of the antibiotics belong to categories considered medically important to humans. …
“‘These are not targeted uses aimed at specific bugs for defined duration. They’re multiple, repeat shotgun blasts that will certainly kill off weaker bugs and promote the stronger, more resistant ones,’ said Keeve Nachman, director of the food production and public health program at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.”
The industry discovered long ago that antibiotics not only can prevent certain illnesses among the flocks, but also that medicated birds get plumper faster than birds without prescriptions. And time is important for producers, who let their chickens live an average of six weeks before leading them to the slaughterhouse.
As the report notes, “Each year, about 430,000 people in the United States become ill from food-borne bacteria that resist conventional antibiotics, according to a July report by the CDC. Overall, the CDC estimates that 2 million people are sickened in the United States annually with infections resistant to antibiotics. At least 23,000 people die.”
In the case of the Foster Farms outbreak, “When epidemiologists examined 68 of the Salmonella Heidelberg cases linked to Foster Farms, they found that two-thirds of the bacteria were resistant to at least one antibiotic, according to the CDC. Half of these superbugs were impervious to drugs in at least three different classes of antibiotics.”
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