Five leading U. S. poultry businesses are using antibiotics to the point of endangering humans. A recent representative study – not by the FDA, not by poultry businesses, but by Reuters news agency – found that Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue Farms, George’s and Koch Foods are overusing low-level antibiotics in chickenfeed to the point of creating “superbugs” dangerous to humans.
Antibiotics have been used in the poultry industry for 60+ years, since scientists discovered the usefulness of antibiotics for fighting diseases in poultry. Veterinary medicine has found that use of antibiotics not only helps curb disease but also promotes healthy digestive systems in poultry, allowing them to gain more weight on the same amount of feed. Feed mills typically produce chicken feed according to a poultry business’ directions and issue “feed tickets” to poultry growers. “Feed tickets,” list the “active drug ingredients,” their amounts, their approved purposes and the stage(s) of poultry’s life at which the prepared feed should be given to the growers’ chickens. By examining 320 feed tickets, Reuters found that 5 of the six examined poultry producers are routinely using antibiotics in low doses over the lives of chickens.
The danger for us resides in the development of “superbugs,” bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Scientists have found that the persistent use of antibiotics in low doses kills off weaker bacteria and causes stronger, antibiotic-resistant bacteria to thrive. The poultry industry uses some antibiotics classified by the FDA as “highly important” for human medicine; consequently, the superbugs created by the poultry industry can cause diseases in chickens and in chicken-eating people that are not effectively treated by “highly important” drugs.
The most striking recent example of a dangerous poultry-based superbug is the 2013-2014 “Foster Farms Outbreak” of Salmonella Heidelberg. Those 7 strains of Salmonella Heidelberg infected 634 people, requiring 200 of them to be hospitalized, and resulting in Foster Farms’ recall of some chicken products, according to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Epidemiologists found from studying nearly 70 cases that 2/3 of the bacteria resisted at least 1 antibiotic and ½ of the bacteria resisted at least 3 kinds of antibiotics. They resisted the antibiotics because they are superbugs. Not content with the CDC’s findings, Foster Farms reportedly bankrolled its own study, which produced different findings. Foster Farms has not produced a copy requested by the CDC or otherwise shared the study.
Despite the superbug problem, the poultry industry’s current methods are legal; therefore, the FDA has addressed the dilemma by issuing voluntary guidelines for the use of antibiotics for poultry and other livestock, by inspecting feed mills, and by planning farm inspections in 2016.
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