There are likely still sources of residual antibiotic-resistant bacteria remaining on the newly organic farms, even after the extensive cleaning required to be certified as organic. These should diminish over time and lead to even lower rates of resistance. And even organically-grown poultry can still have major exposure to antibiotics. They can't be fed antibiotics, but this prohibition only applies from the first day of life onward. Breeder facilities and hatcheries are allowed to inject antibiotics into eggs and the chicks that hatch are still certified organic.
Banned in Europe
Other countries have already acted to curb antibiotic feeding to livestock. Most notably, the European Union banned feeding of all medically important antibiotics to livestock in 1998 and followed that with a total ban on all antibiotics in 2006.
There haven't been many studies done on the effect of banning antibiotics in livestock in Europe and Asia. Two that have been done firmly support the Maryland study's results.
Taiwan banned the use of Avoparcin as a feed additive in 2000. Avoparcin is an analogue of the antibiotic vancomycin; bacteria that are resistant to one of these antibiotics will almost always be resistant to the other. Testing the same two bacterial species that were tested in the Maryland study, a 2007 study found that vancomycin resistant enterococci on chicken farms decreased nearly fourfold from 2000 to 2003, dropping from 13.7 percent to 3.7 percent and 3.4 percent in the two Enterococcus species. (6)
A 2001 study from Denmark tested the effect of the 1998 ban on medically important antibiotics. It compared the antibiotic resistance of E. faecium from broilers in 2000 to the pre-ban level in 1997. It found that resistance to four medically important antibiotics -- avilamycin, avoparcin, erythromycin and virginiamycin had each dropped greatly, to between one half to one-fourteenth of their 1997 level by the year 2000. (7)
Both these studies offer the same lesson as the Maryland one: Stop feeding antibiotics to livestock and antibiotic-resistance in bacteria will quickly decline.
What Does the Future Hold?
People have been given a vision of a future where antibiotic resistance begins to fade, instead of becoming a more serious medical problem with every passing year. But expecting industry to take the lead ignores the lessons of the past. Historically, businesses have been loath to change lucrative practices for the sake of the social good without some type of pressure that forces them to do so. That leaves it up to consumers to make this vision real.
Americans have said no to the food industry before: they rejected New Coke simply because they didn't like the taste, and the Coca-Cola company ultimately had no choice but to bow to their wishes.
There's no question that if enough people reject antibiotic-fed meat and poultry, the industry will have to change their practices. But organic meat and poultry do cost more. And some people simply can't afford to pay much more. Buying at farmers markets or directly from the farmer can help, since prices will be lower. And as the organic market share grows, prices should also begin to drop.
For those who can afford the price, the question becomes simpler: what kind of world do you want to live in? If you'd like one where antibiotics can still cure infections, it might be time to start buying organic meat and poultry. And there could be a bonus: many people say that organic meat tastes much better.
Image: REUTERS/Jessica Renaldi.
(5) van Loo I, Huijsdens X, Tiemersma E, et al. Emergence of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus of Animal Origin in Humans. Emerging Infectious Diseases Dec. 2007; 13:1834-1839. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2876750/. Last accessed September 10, 2011.
(6) Lauderdale T, Shiau Y, Huang H, et al. Effect of banning vancomycin analogue avoparcin on vancomycin-resistant enterococci in chicken farms in Taiwan. Environmental Microbiology March 2007; 9:819-823.
(7) Aarestrup FM, Seyfarth AM, Emborg H, et al. Effect of Abolishment of the Use of Antimicrobial Agents for Growth Promotion on Occurrence of Antimicrobial Resistance in Fecal Enterococci from Food Animals in Denmark. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy July 2001; 45:2054-2059 http://aac.asm.org/cgi/content/full/45/7/2054 Last accessed September 10, 2011.
This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com.