Pigs, antibiotics and the risk of deadly infections

A century ago childbirth, surgery and even minor scratches were deadly risks because of the possibility of infection.  We Americans have no living memory of this because of the miracle of antibiotics.  But our margin of safety is disappearing because of the rise of antibiotics-resistant bacteria.

Drug company research on antibiotics is diminishing for this very reason.  As the drugs become less effective, they become less profitable.  This is a good reason to step up research by the National Institutes of Health on antibiotics and on alternatives to antibiotics (such as phages, viruses that attack bacteria).

Pigs in a factory farm.  Credit: Farm Sanctuary

Pigs in a factory farm. Credit: Farm Sanctuary

An estimated 80 percent of antibiotics administered in the United States are to animals rather than human beings, most of them to healthy animals to promote growth and as a precaution.  It would be possible to slow down evolution of drug-resistant bacteria by using alternative methods of protecting meat animals from disease, such as raising them in less crowded conditions and weaning them at a later date when they’ve built up natural immunities.

The National Pork Producers Council estimated in 2002 that such practices applied to pigs would increase the cost of pork production by $4.50 a pig.  This is trivial in terms of what I pay for a pork barbecue sandwich, but it might be decisive in terms of a farmer’s profit margins, because processors would not offer a farmer who shunned antibiotics a better price than one who used them.

It is interesting to me that Denmark has addressed this problem more decisively and effectively than we Americans have.  What gives Denmark such a good political culture when compared to the United States?

LINKS

Imagining the Post-Antibiotic Future by Maryn McKenna for the Food and Environmental Reporting Network.  Hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist.

Our Big Pig Problem by the editors of Scientific American.

Danish Pig Farmers Reduce Antibiotics to Prevent Drug Resistance by Julia Koch for Spiegel Online.

Farm Sanctuary on Wikipedia.  A profile of an organization advocating humane treatment of farm animals.

Of course pigs are just one example of the problem of antibiotic resistance.  Chickens, beef cattle and other livestock also are given antibiotics in large amounts.

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