by Courtney Brein, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow
For the last two evenings, Katie Couric has presented a special CBS news investigation into the use of antibiotics in factory farms. For decades, farms around the country have routinely added antibiotics to animal feed, in order to cause animals to grow more quickly and to keep disease from rapidly spreading in the confinement pens that characterize factory farming.
The CBS investigation segment began with a focus on a group of farm workers who have experienced repeated cases of methicillin-resistant staph (MRSA), due to their jobs handling poultry. Unfortunately, these workers are not the exception – and poultry not the only problematic farmed animal. CBS referenced a University of Iowa study conducted last year, which found a new strain of MRSA in 70 percent of hogs and 64 percent of farm workers on antibiotic-using farms in Iowa and Western Illinois. These numbers present a stark contrast to antibiotic-free farms, where researchers did not find MRSA in any hogs or workers.
These findings present a problem, not only for farm workers, but for the broader population. Health officials at the FDA and elsewhere have started to express concern that overuse of antibiotics in factory farming will contribute to antibiotic-resistant infections, a rapidly increasing problem in the United States.
While watchdog groups have long called for an end to the use of antibiotics in factory farming, no government action has been taken on the issue, as of yet. The FDA, however, intends to change that, according to Joshua Sharfstein, FDA deputy director.
“We want to put in place measures to reduce inappropriate use and we want to see that those are working – in order to do that we have to have a good surveillance system,” Sharfstein told CBS’ Couric. “There’s no question that needs to be improved.”
Not everyone agrees that American factory farms overuse antibiotics. Liz Wagstrom, a veterinarian with the National Pork Board, told Couric that she believes that the majority of pork producers use antibiotics appropriately. Other beef and pork industry groups, such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, have also made statements about the need for the current antibiotic use in factory farming.
One thing seems certain: this issue will not be resolved anytime soon. Interested consumers should stay tuned as the battle over antibiotics in American meat heats up, and those who are concerned about consuming antibiotic-tainted meat should look for the statements “no antibiotics administered” or “raised without antibiotics” on packaging at the grocery store.