Avoiding an Antibiotic Apocalypse

Sows in Malaysia (Sonia Faruqi)

"When the sows don't eat enough," Charlie told me, "they get a needle of penicillin."

A lanky man in his 20s, Charlie injected the first of many sows with penicillin. He did it carelessly, clumsily, without seeking a specific site of her body, his penicillin ministration like flinging a penny into a fountain. The sow -- viewed as a fountain of piglets -- remained leaden and insensible, no longer even noticing her daily needles, having become less "live" and more "stock," as was intended by the conditions she was housed in.

Living in the ammonia-filled stench of her own manure, which accumulated below her underneath the matted floor, she'd given birth a little over a week ago to 13 piglets. They were clustered together like magnets to the other side of the narrow contraption that was her farrowing crate.

I was at Charlie's sow factory farm as part of my international expedition investigating animal farms. My journey took me from egg warehouses in Canada to dairy feedlots in the United States, from farm offices in Mexico to Mennonite pastures in Belize, from village chicken flocks in Indonesia to industrial operations in Malaysia. Over the course of my investigations, I became deeply concerned about the treatment of farm animals and the public health and environmental threats posed by factory farms. I noticed the consistent overuse of antibiotics.

Last week, Tyson Foods announced that it will strive to eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its American chickens by 2017. The press release came on the heels of McDonald's USA's announcement in March to aim to source from suppliers who raise chickens without human antibiotics. The close timing of the two announcements is not a coincidence: Tyson is among McDonald's biggest suppliers.

Antibiotics are generally employed by agriculture less to duel disease and more to instill appetite. They tend to be pre-mixed into feed in low doses, such that whenever animals eat, they consume antibiotics with their meal. Antibiotics make farm animals eat more, which makes them gain weight faster, which, in turn, generates higher profits for companies. But the free-wheeling of antibiotics is dangerous because the medication kills some, but not all, bacteria and the remaining germs develop gene mutations and become resistant, turning into "superbugs."

Penicillin, for instance, used by Charlie, is the first antibiotic ever invented and the most iconic. Discovered in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming, it is credited with launching a new era in medicine and saving millions of human lives.

But it should not be taken for granted. "I would like to sound one note of warning," Fleming said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1945. "There may be a danger... in underdosage. It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them."

Designated by the World Health Organization as a "critically important" antibiotic in human medicine, penicillin's misuse in agriculture is part of the reason for its undermined effectiveness today.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that drug-resistant bacteria infect at least 2 million Americans every year, of whom at least 23,000 die as a direct result of these infections. (Many more die from conditions that were complicated by antibiotic-resistant infections.) Agriculture is responsible for much of antibiotic resistance, as the use of antibiotics in farm animals today accounts for more than 70 percent of all use in the country, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"A post-antibiotic era -- in which common infections and minor injuries can kill--far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st Century," describes the World Health Organization. The danger to health is dire enough that, a month ago, the U.S. government released a National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria.

Tyson and McDonald's steps away from antibiotics in chickens are, overall, positive. They should be extended to pigs and cows, and to the companies' international arms. Even if they aren't, though, they will still have a ripple effect through animal agriculture globally, since McDonald's and Tyson are the world's leading fast food chain and meat producer, respectively.

McDonald's 36,000 locations serve 69 million people every day -- greater than the population of the United Kingdom -- and its golden arches are more recognizable than the Christian cross, according to an international survey. Arkansas-based Tyson Foods has a retail presence in 130 countries and runs a production process that is widely imitated worldwide, viewed by other companies as a model.

It must be noted, however, that antibiotic overuse merely scratches the surface of the problems posed by factory farms today. Animals are reared in large, windowless warehouses in conditions of extremely close confinement. Even if Charlie's sows were to no longer be injected with penicillin, they would remain trapped behind iron-galvanized steel bars of two-foot-wide crates. A broad focus on improvements in animal welfare is urgent and essential. It would result in less antibiotics being needed in the first place.

Sonia Faruqi is the author of Project Animal Farm: An Accidental Journey into the Secret World of Farming and the Truth About Our Food, forthcoming in July 2015. Her website is www.soniafaruqi.com and she can be found on Twitter @Sonia_Faruqi.