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Antibiotics and Food Production: Are we Feeding a Health Crisis and Squandering the Cure?

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I worry. A lot. My worry gene works overtime. A doctor once told me it's called an "overactive checker" (or as I like to think of it, my OC). As far as afflictions go, it's not terrible. OC's are good to have around. They see danger from miles away. They pay close attention.

Motherhood can be particularly tough on OC's. We know too well that there's no such thing as "out of sight out of mind." But over the years I have come to terms with my checker, and now consider it a trusted friend. It was my checker that helped me raise my kids with a minimum of cuts and scratches, rear three dogs from eight-week-old puppies, and eventually opened my eyes to the looming dangers of global warming. It's the same trusted checker that is screaming, "Wake up! Wake up!" on the issue of antibiotic resistance.

Here is what I know for sure. We are dishing out 80 percent of our antibiotics on the animals we eat. Much of those antibiotics are used to make the animals grow faster, not to treat them for infections. Many critics of antibiotic-hungry factory farms claim producers are also using them to compensate for the truly disgusting living conditions in which most animals are raised, so bad that the industry is trying to make taking pictures of it illegal!

The industrial Ag business is free to use our antibiotics to make healthy animals grow faster, for what? To cut costs? Increase production? This is the meat we buy in grocery stores, and order from the drive-through window at fast food joints. Yup, that's one reason why many of those chicken fingers and burgers our kids love for lunch and dinner are so deceptively cheap these days. But is it worth losing our antibiotics for?

Without having debated it or voted on it, or decided as a nation, we are giving away our chances to save one of most precious medicines man has ever developed for human use. Medicines we know we are going to need for our children, our elderly parents, our loved ones.

While widespread misuse of antibiotics in human medicine plays no small role in the problem, scientists fear that the misuse of antibiotics in poultry and livestock production is a major contributor to our global antibiotic resistance dilemma. Drug resistant bacterial infections among people can lead to higher medical costs, and in the worst cases, death. You would be shocked by the number of annual deaths from diseases that have become highly resistant to antibiotics. In fact, the World Health Organization just announced that we're quickly heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which "many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, kill unabated."

Let's see what we're talking about:

Every year in the U.S., there are 90,000 cases of invasive staph that are highly resistant to our best antibiotics, and can be life-threatening. Around the world, about 440,000 new cases of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis emerge annually. As a result, 150,000 people die each year.

More than 80% of the E. coli found in meat products is resistant to one or more antibiotics used for treatment.

The bacteria that cause certain types of pneumonia and meningitis are rapidly becoming resistant to standard antibiotics.

All of this means that infections are becoming increasingly harder and more expensive to treat, and in some cases, no treatment even exists.

How ironic that our pediatricians and doctors have hammered into our brains that 'You must finish all ten days of this antibiotic or it won't be effective the next time!' Moms diligently follow that rule, without any idea that the effectiveness of these drugs is being undermined every single day.

We have to stop this. Researchers have known for half a century that bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics over time. The more antibiotics are used, the quicker bacteria become resistant. That is why the FDA, the USDA, the American Medical Association, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the American Public Health Association, the CDC and many others have all publicly criticized the overuse of antibiotics in livestock.

This is seriously scary stuff. These past months have been a terrifying reminder that we have to be prepared for disasters here at home. Safety kits have been checked, extra water and food stored, and iodine pills have flown off the shelves across America. But we know that real preparation comes in the form of foresight, planning, and preserving our assets, including the effectiveness of our doctors and medicines.

Even without a natural disaster descending upon us in America, the ability of our doctors to treat health epidemics is being seriously undermined, setting us up for another kind of disaster -- a health catastrophe.

And still, with everything we do know, with all the reports in, research done, warnings cited, very little is being done to stop it. That's where worrying moms come in.

Moms, do you remember being given a choice, whether or not you prefer saving our best medicines, our antibiotics, in case a loved one comes down with a terrible illness, or pneumonia? Or do you prefer to continue to hand over our precious medicines to factory farms so that we can continue our supersized addiction to meat.

I don't remember being given a choice. Do you? Talk about it tonight at dinner. See what the family thinks. Then let's do something about it.

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