Washington, D.C. -- When I first saw Henrik Ibsen's play about a town that ostracizes a doctor for publicizing the fact that the town's mineral baths are seriously contaminated, back in the 1960s, it seemed dated. According to how I had been taught American history, such a cover-up was once possible, but the Progressive era, the two Roosevelts, and the New Deal had transformed America into a modern, thoughtful public-health-committed country. How naive that reaction seems today.
You could do a relevant modern production of that play this month with only a few changes. The issue, however, is a far more massive public health threat than any Ibsen ever imagined -- it's the threat of superbugs. These are diseases that no antibiotic can control and that result from using overcrowded, factory-feedlot livestock as four-legged germ-warfare laboratories.
Seventy percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are fed to healthy animals -- well, animals that would be healthy if they weren't overcrowded and improperly fed. These antibiotics are used on animals that are not sick in order to prevent disease from erupting in these facilities. Such massive prophylactic use of antibiotics encourages bacteria to develop resistant strains, and now medicine is on the verge of running out of drugs that haven't been rendered useless for human health by being misused to allow animal abuse.
So New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter -- the only microbiologist in Congress -- has assumed the role played in Ibsen's drama by Dr. Stockmann. She's introduced a bill to ban the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock. And agribusiness rose in protest. Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau, claimed that since farmers used these drugs "carefully, judiciously and according to label instructions" there was no problem. "Antibiotic use in animals does not pose a serious public health threat" he asserted.
Last year scientists tested pork being sold in Louisiana stores. Ten percent of the samples tested positive for a single antibiotic-resistant strain of staph called MRSA. Another study of retail meats in Washington was better -- only .3 percent -- but even that rate shows that feeding antibiotics to healthy pigs is, in fact, breeding superbugs. A peer reviewed study by Medical Clinics of North America concluded that feeding drugs to healthy animals was a "major component" in antibiotic resistance. The Infectious Diseases Society of America calls this a "public health crisis."
Why do doctors and agribusiness disagree so vehemently? Well, if you read what the Farm Bureau says carefully, they argue that the superbugs in pigs don't survive cooking your pork chop -- which is technically true but fatally flawed. First, the bugs in uncooked meat end up on cooking surfaces and inadequately washed hands and can contaminate consumers indirectly in a host of ways. But more importantly, the issue is not whether we are exposed to superbugs through eating meat -- it's where we breed them. Because once these bacteria take hold down on the farm, they spread on their own, not just through the meat counter. But by defining their arguments to the question of whether superbugs survive cooking heat, the Farm Bureau avoids the real issue -- this debate should be a doozie as Slaughter's bill makes its way through Congress.