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How factory farms are making the antibiotics we use less effective against disease

Two scientists explain the public health risks posed by factory farms — and how we might solve the problem.

A pig farmer gives a piglet an antibiotic “booster shot.”
Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Every year, around 8 million Americans go to a health care provider for a urinary tract infection. Fortunately, many of those infections are pretty easy to treat. Doctors prescribe a regimen of antibiotics and send the patient on their merry way.

But if those antibiotics stopped working, urinary tract infections could quickly develop into something much more serious: possibly a kidney infection, maybe a blood infection, sepsis, and even death. And since we’re increasingly seeing antibiotic resistance in a wide range of bacteria, UTIs would be one of many infections that would become much less easy to treat.

That’s why Cindy Liu and Lance Price, two public health researchers, were so concerned when they found E. coli from chicken meat in samples of human urinary tract infections.

Liu and Price knew that factory-farmed chickens, like many factory-farmed animals worldwide, are fed a steady supply of antibiotics over the course of their lives to fend off disease. They also knew that the E. coli growing among those chickens were becoming resistant to those antibiotics. And now they had evidence that those antibiotic resistant E. coli from chickens could take up residence in human bladders.

As Liu clarifies, there has been some effort in the US to separate the antibiotics used in human medicine and animal treatment, but other countries have different standards.

“Bacteria, they do not respect boundaries,” she says. So antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli could easily travel here from other countries, leaving us with infections that we cannot treat.

The practice of feeding factory-farmed animals a steady diet of antibiotics doesn’t just undermine our ability to treat human urinary tract infections. It’s a problem for any of the infections we currently treat with antibiotics.

“As bacteria become resistant to all of our antibiotics because of our overuse in animal production and in human medicine, we are not going to be able to save people the way we have in the past, which is by just giving them an oral antibiotic,” Price says. “My sister had bone cancer just two years ago. The first four rounds of chemo, she had three bacterial infections. If any of those had been super resistant, she could have died of a failure of a $20 prescription.”

On this episode of the Future Perfect podcast, we explore the antibiotic risks posed by our current system of raising meat, and what we might do to fix the problem.

Further reading

This podcast is made possible thanks to support from Animal Charity Evaluators. They research and promote the most effective ways to help animals.

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