Overcoming Antibiotic Resistance on Hog Farms
12 Feb, 2012
After nearly succumbing to an antibiotic-resistant infection contracted from one of his hogs, Russ Kremer went cold turkey. He exterminated his diseased pigs and swore off the antibiotics he’d long-used to boost his herd’s growth and prevent the illnesses so common in concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
Now, more than 20 years later, he says his farm is organic, sustainable, humane and still nearly as efficient as the typical industrial CAFO. Plus he’s eliminated the $16,000 a year he used to spend on veterinary and drug bills. And he hasn’t sacrificed his pigs’ health in the process. If anything, the opposite is true for Fred, Barney, Wilma, Pebbles, Bamm-Bamm and the other 500-some pigs that roam his 150-acre farm.
“My mortality rate is less than 1 percent after they leave their mother. In the industry, many people are seeing a 5 to 10 percent loss,” Kremer, now president of Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative in Missouri, told The Huffington Post. “I don’t even own a syringe anymore.”
Better yet, he has remained healthy himself.
Kremer’s story exemplifies the findings of a growing number of scientific studies on the effects of antibiotic use in livestock. As HuffPost previously reported, the 29 million pounds of antibiotics given to livestock every year — about four times the amount consumed by people, and mostly used at sub-therapeutic doses — appears to be contributing to a rise in drug-resistant infections in both animals and people. The most infamous of the microbes: methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA.
“We’ve worked our way into a pickle,” said David Wallinga, a senior adviser at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. The more antibiotics we use, the more microbes become resistant to those drugs — even to our “biggest guns.” It’s a microscopic survival of the fittest.
Wallinga and his colleagues recently found drug-resistant microbes in 65 percent of about 400 pork products sampled from a dozen grocery stores across Iowa, Minnesota and New Jersey. Nearly 7 percent of the products had measurable amounts of MRSA, according to their study, published in January in the journal PLoS ONE.
To the team’s surprise, MRSA thrived in both conventional meat and meat labeled as antibiotic-free. (The “antibiotic-free” label is not regulated.)
At first glance, this finding might contradict other research, such as a study also published in January from the National Animal Disease Center (NADC) in Ames, Iowa. The intestines of piglets raised with antibiotics added to their feed accommodated both a greater number and wider variety of antibiotic resistance genes than the intestines of pigs not fed the drugs, according to that research. The treated pigs’ innards were also colonized by more E. coli.
Still, both groups of pigs carried at least some resistant genes, the information that tells a microbe how to evade microbe-killing drugs. Only the presence or absence — not quantity of MRSA — was measured in the pork study.
“We find antibiotic resistance genes quite prevalent in all pigs, irrespective of antibiotic feeding. We think this may be partially due to the fact that at least in pig growing regions, the background flora that they pick up is already enriched with antibiotic resistance genes,” said James Tiedje, a microbiologist at Michigan State University and researcher on the study.
This concept was illustrated in yet another study published last year. Wild pigs from an island off the coast of South Carolina were compared to organically raised pigs in the Midwest. In this case, the guts of the wild pigs had 1,000-fold fewer bacteria resistant to the tetracycline class of antibiotics compared to their organic counterparts. (An organic label does imply antibiotic-free certification.)