Even if global coverage on the potential swine flu pandemic may be an over-reaction, it's clear that the outbreak is still a serious issue (which you can now follow via Google Maps). All things considered, the outbreak seems to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In addition to the other questionable agribusiness practices of "confined animal feeding operations" — a new study by the Soil Association suggests that the overuse of antibiotics could also be a major factor in creating antibiotic resistant super-pathogens (aside from the mutant strain of viral swine flu wreaking havoc now). These bacterial "superbugs" include:...methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA, pronounced "mersa"), campylobacter, drug-resistant E. coli and salmonella. Though MRSA has cropped up in hospitals since the 1990s, there have been more recent strains cropping up in on hog-farming operations.
Nicholas Kristof's insightful New York Times column (which has already picked up on the likely connection between agribusiness' "insane overuse" of antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria back in March) cites these alarming statistics:
- A small Dutch study found Dutch pig farmers to be 760 times more likely to carry MRSA, without necessarily showing symptoms. Scientific American reports that this MRSA strain was also found in 12 percent of Dutch retail pork samples
- This same strain of MRSA has also been found in the United States: according to a new study by University of Iowa epidemiologist Tara Smith, 45 percent of pig farmers and 49 percent of the hogs tested carried MRSA
- other research by Peter Davies of the University of Minnesota found that 25 percent to 39 percent of American hogs carry MRSA
So what is the link between this strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the industrial farming complex? Well, for years many scientists have speculated that these massive, inhumane swine "factories" could become incubators for virulent super-pathogens that could quickly spread as a pandemic — whether it's through direct contact, contaminated groundwater, or by air travel.
Thanks to the crowded and unhygienic conditions of these "factories", animals are pumped full of antibiotics — the prerequisite for antibiotic resistant organisms and a potential public health crisis. According to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, seventy percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. go to healthy livestock, while a 2008 peer-reviewed study by the Medical Clinics of North America concluded that antibiotics in livestock feed were "a major component" in the rise in antibiotic resistance.
"We don't give antibiotics to healthy humans," says Robert Martin, who led a Pew Commission investigating antibiotic use on industrial farms. "So why give them to healthy animals just so we can keep them in crowded and unsanitary conditions?"
Why? It's because big agribusiness interests have been successful so far in preventing any legislation that could have banned the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in the name of the bottom line. It's cheaper to give drugs to animals, force them to live under appalling conditions, than to provide humane alternatives — and even cheaper to externalize ecological and health costs of such operations to countries like Mexico.
But what we could have here is a potential pandemic that knows no borders - and a potential opportunity to change the unsustainable industrial model of farming from an environmental and health threat - to one that could actually work. Though it might be too early to pinpoint conclusively the underlying factor(s), the abuse of antibiotics deserves some consideration in the larger scheme of things. The question is: will governments and consumers step up to the challenge of demanding better regulations, alternatives to excessive antibiotic use and more healthy and humane conditions from the agribusiness industry?
New York Times
More on Swine-Related Diseases
Swine Flu: What You Need to Know
Antiviral Tamiflu Stockpiling Fast, Despite Unclear Health and Environmental Effects
Pork Chops Won't Give You Swine Flu, But Here Are Other Reasons to Abstain
Follow the Swine Flu (H1N1) with Google Maps
Swine Flu Reveals: What's Bad for the Environment is Bad for Human Health