Ecocentric

Why Meat in China — and the U.S. — Has a Drug Problem

A new study shows widespread antibiotic resistance on Chinese farms, where use of the drugs to speed animal growth is common. That could have scary impacts for the rest of the world

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Courtesy of San'an Nie

Pigs in a commercial farm in China

Back in 2005, when I was a reporter based out of TIME’s Hong Kong office, I spent more time than I care to remember in the backyard chicken farms of Asia. This was the time of the H5N1 avian flu, which broke out regularly in chickens and occasionally (with fatal effects) in human beings and which always seemed to be one click of the genetic lock away from threatening the entire world. To prevent that mutation from happening — one of that would have allowed the deadly H5N1 virus to spread easily from person to person, like a human flu virus — health officials in affected countries would do their best to track and eradicate outbreaks as they occurred in animals, often by simply culling an afflicted flock.

But there was always one country where that plan never quite worked: China. Chinese chicken farmers had an unfortunate habit of prophylactically dosing their birds with Tamiflu, the only antiviral drug that showed any effectiveness against H5N1. (U.S. preparations for a possible bird-flu pandemic included stockpiling millions of doses of the drug.) As a result, it became that much more difficult for health officials to track H5N1 outbreaks because Tamiflu-dosed chickens could still get infected and spread the virus but without showing the symptoms that would set off medical alarm bells. And overusing Tamiflu also eroded its effectiveness as over time the H5N1 virus was able to develop a resistance to the drug. Had an H5N1 human pandemic ever occurred, we may well have been helpless.

In the years since, you might have hoped that Chinese farmers had learned to be a bit more judicious when it comes to dealing out high-end human drugs to their animals — but that’s not the case. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that China, already the world’s largest producer and consumer of antibiotics, is heavily using the drugs in animals as a way to enhance growth and prevent disease in crowded conditions. And just as happened with the overuse of Tamiflu, China’s animal drug addiction is leading to increasing antibiotic resistance, which in turn could lead to serious problems for people who depend on those drugs to fight infections. “It’s urgent that we protect the effectiveness of our current antibiotics because discovering new ones is extremely difficult,” said Zhu Yongguan, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the lead author on the PNAS paper. “Multidrug resistance is a global problem and must be addressed in a comprehensive manner.”

It’s no secret that Chinese farmers use high levels of antibiotics in animal feed. The question for researchers is whether that might be a direct cause of increasing antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. For the PNAS paper, researchers actually sifted through the manure-enriched soil found near three large-scale Chinese pig farms, searching for the presence of antibiotic-resistant genes. (The medicine tends to be poorly absorbed by the animals, and so much of it does end up in the manure.) It wasn’t hard to find them. Researchers counted 149 unique antibiotic-resistant genes, some at levels 192 to 28,000 times higher than control samples. Since the manure is often sold as fertilizer or washes downstream into rivers, those antibiotic-resistant genes can spread to other forms of bacteria, decreasing the overall effectiveness of the drugs in human beings.

But Chinese farmers are hardly alone in their reliance on drugs, as new numbers from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week showed. In 2011, 29.9 million lb. of antibiotics were sold in the U.S. for meat and poultry production — nearly four times the amount sold to treat sick people. And most of the animals taking the drugs likely aren’t sick; as in China, the antibiotics are used for growth promotion and to help the pigs or chickens survive crowded conditions on industrial farms.

At least that’s what we think — producers of meat and poultry aren’t required to report how they use the drugs, which drugs they use, on which animals and in which quantities. That makes it difficult for scientists to directly connect the heavy use of antibiotics in animals with antibiotic resistance in people. In a New York Times story last year, one public-health researcher compared the lack of data collection to “facing off against a major public health crisis with one hand tied behind our backs.” But efforts by the government in the past to more tightly regulate antibiotics in animals have met with failure, thanks in part to powerful agriculture interests.

There’s some hope: last year the FDA issued draft guidelines that would ask the pharmaceutical industry to change labeling and marketing practices so that antibiotics would be used only on sick animals, rather than for growth promotion on healthy ones. But even those guidelines would only be voluntary. In China and in the U.S., drugs are likely to remain a part of commercial meat production — and the rest of us may pay the price.

25 comments
HilaryGroom
HilaryGroom

there is not healthy animal in an industrial farm

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

Shame we cant burn the farmers and chickens for their stupidity.

GwenHernandez
GwenHernandez like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

just go vegetarian. YOU have the power to decide what you consume. 

US1776
US1776 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Ban meat.

Problem solved.

.

splash
splash like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

if we would all just go vegetarian it would be a tremendous benefit on our poor earth

crazyvermont
crazyvermont

As veteran of meat industry, I read this article with interest as well as comments below. While true, that there is a substantial use of antibiotics in raising livestock, and at least in poultry; they are given from time of hatching, the author neglected to provide the reason.  Whether in China or the USA, poultry is highly susceptible to disease and antibiotics are used as a preventative measure. On the other hand, European countries wait for the poultry to get sick, introduce antibiotics well over 70% of the time and can still sell the meat labeled as antibiotic free meat.I' on board with the post below advocating a farm bill that protects small farmers and allows for people to purchase product free of antibiotics, but the average consumer just couldn't afford antibiotic free meats

Gumboz1953
Gumboz1953

@crazyvermont Like Splash said -- if we could just ditch the meat, it would benefit us AND everybody else.  These huge mega-agri-businesses not only are awash in antibiotics; they are knee-deep in feces and other wonderful things, inhumane treatment amounting to pure torture, and -- wait for it -- some of the worst pollution on the planet (methane and dirty waste water).  PLUS the grains that go to feed all those animals could be more efficiently used to feed humans.  It's a really idiotic system, benefiting only the huge corporations who engage in this stupidness.  Just so already fat and unhealthy humans can have their Big Macs and KFC.

DBritt
DBritt

@crazyvermont Pay me now or pay me later.  Would you rather have cheap, crappy, inhumanely raised meat or effective and affordable antibiotics?  The "pain" the meat industry feels on behalf of the consumer is felt not in the heart but in the pocket.

sensi
sensi

@crazyvermont Speaking of Europe I know that France among others were speaking a few years ago about limiting the use of antibiotics and forbidding the use of the ones critical for humans in order to prevent any antibiotic-resistant genes, any idea about that? Leaving alone the antibiotics-by-default lazy and dangerous folly, the US meat is so full of injected garbage that I wouldn't touch it with a pole.

crazyvermont
crazyvermont

@sensi @crazyvermont It's dangerous anytime you make a wide sweeping comment:) There definitely is some improvements that can occur in the US Meat supply but as part of upper management in a large meat company, I can assure you we strive to uphold the highest standards in food safety and humane livestock treatment. For all the problems we supposedly have compared to other industrialized countries, I doubt anyone will find horse meat in a US supermarket anytime soon.  I'm sure our harshest critics in Europe wish they could say the same

crazyvermont
crazyvermont

@Gumboz1953 Undercover investigations find problems at problem plants.....our clean room facilities pass QC inspections that many hospitals couldn't pass. You need to get into a real meat facility not spout bumper sticker slogans which sound good, but are not based on reality. I'm not anti small farm, but there is a difference between antibiotic free and safe product. Example:  I live by Amish who sell Hormone and antibiotic poultry to a wide area in the Midwest.  It's nothing to walk on their farms and not only see dead rotting birds but also see chickens eating fed from pans littered with pigeon feces. As far as Americans eating too much meat, I'd tend to agree but kind of goes to the point of personal responsibility.

Gumboz1953
Gumboz1953 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@crazyvermont Also, why is big agribusiness trying to pas Ag-Gag laws everywhere --- where it's a CRIME to report animal abuse at these factory farms?  Yes, exercising a constitutional right can get you prosecuted.  Thanks again, government, for being in the pocket of Big Business.

Gumboz1953
Gumboz1953 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@crazyvermont  Humane?  really?  Why is it that undercover investigators never fail to just "happen" to find horrible abuse, every time they film?  It's a rotten, dirty industry that I wish would just implode.  Karma will be a bitch, for everybody involved in it.  And food safety?  With the USDA in the pockets of the agribusinesses?  It's like a revolving door at that agency.  Give me a break.  Anybody who eats meat or chicken produced anywhere but a small farm, is insane.  And if that makes it too expensive -- give it up.  It's bad for you anyway.

JebStuart
JebStuart like.author.displayName 1 Like

Great Story,  I am a small farmer and it is distrubing how small producers like myself are constantly under attack for wanting to provide food products not full of  antibiotics.  We made out to be the enemy if we do not want our neigbors Monsanto products invading our grounds.  Then all of our Marketing terms are Hijacked by the big producers.  Free Range Chickens does not mean a 300 square foot pen connected to a 20,000 square foot barn in my opinion.  Over the last few years there has been swat like invasions of small farms for selling milk.  Look at Bakers Green Acres under attack for a breed of pig.  Do we try to destroy someone becuase they have a new breed og dog as a pet?   We need a Small Farm Bill, to proctect the rights of small producers, and provide total freedom for the consumer to choose healthy products.

Gumboz1953
Gumboz1953

@JebStuart Hang in there.  I don't eat meat, but a small farmer should be able to make a living.  You are the backbone of this country.  It is criminal what the large corporations are doing to  you and other small farmers.

prastagus
prastagus

If you can find evidences and do onsite research in Chinese chicken farms, how then can you not find evidences and do research in USA where it should be more transparent? Something is missing here