Organic Farms May Keep Bacteria at Bay

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Given how the cracks in our food system have recently expanded into troubling chasms – remember the ground turkey Salmonella scare, and the emergence of an antibiotic-resistant Salmonella strain – health experts are once again fretting about farms and the drugs used in them. And with good reason. Antibiotics may be some of the best medical tools we have, but overusing them can mean a rise in resistant strains of bacteria that sneak their way into meat — and then into us. But new research is showing that the fix may be easier than we think: scientists at the University of Maryland have demonstrated that going organic, or at least removing antibiotics  from large poultry farms, means a huge drop in antibiotic resistance for several types of bacteria.

The team zeroed in on enterococci bacteria,  hardy little devils that hang out in our intestines and cause many common urinary tract and surgical wound infections. The investigators studied large-scale poultry farms in the mid-Atlantic region – ten of them newly organic and ten non-organic – to find if these bacteria were present and to check the enterococci’s resistance to 17 common antimicrobials.

More from TIME: The Rise of Antibiotic-Resistant Salmonella

What they found was that the just-turned-organic farms had a significantly lower presence of antibiotic-resistant enterococci in their poultry feed, litter and water. And the bacteria the farms did have were easier to beat. Just 18% of the Enterococcus faecalis in the newly organic poultry farms, for example, were resistant to an antibiotic that treats pneumonia, whooping cough and bronchitis, compared to 67% on the non-organic farms. The conventional farms also had much higher levels of multi-drug resistant bacteria, or bacteria that can be resistant to all available antibiotics. A whopping 84% of Enterococcus faecium from conventional farms were resistant to multiple drugs compared to only 17% of newly organic farms.

“We were surprised to see that the differences were so significant across several different classes of antibiotics even in the very first flock that was produced after the transition to organic standards,” study author Amy R. Sapkota said in a statement. “These findings show that, at least in the case of enterococci, we begin to reverse resistance on farms even among the first group of animals that are grown without antibiotics.” And these findings could translate to the Salmonella that have been invading our meat recently: enterococci likes exchanging its resistance genes with other bacteria and is thus a “good model” for studying antibiotic use in farms, according to Sapkota.

More from Ecocentric: A Mysterious Salmonella Outbreak Shows the Holes in Our Food Safety System

Sapkota predicts that as farms increasingly adopt the organic — or at least drug-free — route we will see even greater drops in drug-resistant bacteria. “We need to look forward and see what happens over 5 years, 10 years in time,” she said.

There’s still a lot to be done of course, like more rigorous USDA Salmonella tests and actually making it illegal to sell meat contaminated with Salmonella (believe it or not, it isn’t – check out this great post by Wired’s Maryn Mckenna). But cutting down on the antibiotics we use on farms is a very good start. If you still have doubts, consider this final stat: a shocking 80% of the antibiotics sold in the United States each year are consumed not by humans, but by cows, chickens and other domesticated animals. That’s definitely way too much of a good thing.

Tara Thean is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @TaraThean. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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