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Unkillable Bacteria: Where Eating Meat Meets Pound of Flesh

For the sake of our health, the ethical treatment of fellow creatures and the hope that our antibiotics will work as intended when we need it -- we should eat less meat, more plants.
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As reported by the New York Times, the FDA is on the brink of sharply curtailing the prevailing practice of routine antibiotic administration to feed animals.

Since you probably don't have a large pig pen or cattle yard in your backyard, this might seem to be at several removes from anything you need to care about. But you should care.

Antibiotics fed to animals we eat are, in turn, to some degree eaten by us along with those animals. True, much of the drug has passed through the animal at the time of slaughter, but probably not that last dose or two. So, we, too, are nominally subject to routine antibiotic dosing. Comes along with the pickle and sesame seed bun, no extra charge.

But the far greater issue is this: microbes, aka bacteria, encounter those antibiotics in vast herds of medicated cattle and swine. The vulnerable bugs are killed; the strong survive. They survive by means of resistance factors, which are then passed on to their progeny.

The result, of course, is antimicrobial resistant bugs that laugh off such antibiotics as methicillin, and vancomycin, and just maybe ... everything else we've got.

And, unfortunately, that laughter is highly contagious. By means of such molecular devilry as plasmids, resistant bacteria can pass along traits not only to their offspring, but also to their neighbors -- and they to theirs. If this doesn't scare you, no evil thing will!

The basis for the looming FDA action is research indicating that antibiotic dosing of feed animals is probably a greater contributor to the global burden of antimicrobial-resistant germs than is the use of such drugs in hospitals; quite possibly, a far greater contributor. So the FDA action seems not only logical and warranted, but if anything, overdue.

But here's the rub: what is likely to happen to very large, very densely packed herds of feed animals raised without antibiotics? At best, infections and their toll and slower overall growth and development will almost certainly drive up the cost of meat. At worst, the conditions of industrial farming may create a giant petrie dish that propagates infections among feed animals, some of which may spread to us.

Seems a damned if we do, damned if we don't scenario, but it isn't. That is if we do the thing that fixes the problem at the source. Eat less meat.

While I very much support a vegetarian or vegan diet, I don't see that as the only solution for a species that has been omnivorous for a very long time -- further back, perhaps, than it has been a species. But for the sake of our health, the health of our planet, the ethical treatment of fellow creatures and the preservation of any hope that our antibiotics will work as intended when needed most urgently-- we should eat less meat, more plants. Go all the way to veganism if inclined, or go only a few steps -- but go.

We have turned a vast quantity of meat on the hoof into an incubator for bugs we can't beat. Eliminating somewhat gratuitous use of antibiotics is a helpful start. But the best way to avoid such horrors as resistant, flesh-eating bacteria is to overcome our cultural resistance to the notion of life with fewer hamburgers, and eat a bit less flesh ourselves.

Dr. David L. Katz