In a recent New York Times column, Nick Kristof called attention to a new study strongly suggesting that the U.S. poultry industry is still using a prohibited class of antibiotics in violation of a 2005 ban. Conducted by public health researchers at Johns Hopkins and Arizona State University, the study tested commercial feather meal, a byproduct of poultry feathers, for pharmaceutical residues, in much the same way human hair is tested for mercury.
Amongst myriad drug residues, the researchers found:
- Caffeine, used to "[keep] the chickens awake so that they eat more and grow faster"
- Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, "often used to keep the birds up and moving late in the grow-out process," due to the chronic pain more than one in four chickens experience as a result of genetically manipulated rapid growth
- Diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl, "often used for respiratory problems which are quite prevalent due to the ... huge numbers in confined areas"
- Twenty other drugs, including Prozac and Cipro
Yes, Prozac. But what's Cipro? Cipro is a type of antibiotic called a quinolone, which shouldn't be turning up in chicken drug tests given that it was banned from chicken feed by the FDA seven years ago. Yet quinolone residues turned up in six out of 10 U.S. samples.
The reason for the ban is ironic. One of the human infections quinolones can be critical for the treatment of is Campylobacter, the most common bacterial cause of foodborne illness in the United States. And the number one source of Campylobacter? You guessed it: chicken. This fecal bacteria is so prevalent that a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that 38 percent of retail chicken breasts are contaminated.
You don't need a Ph.D. in microbiology to see where this is headed. The routine feeding of quinolones to chickens fosters quinolone-resistant strains of Campylobacter, which, when passed along to humans, suddenly becomes much more difficult to treat. In countries like Australia, which had the foresight to reserve this class exclusively for human use, quinolone-resistant Campylobacter have been practically unknown.
In 2000, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that the use of these antibiotics in chickens posed an unacceptable threat to public health, compromising the treatment of thousands of Americans every year. Delays in effective treatment caused by quinolone-resistant Campylobacter have been associated with a sixfold increase in complications, including spread of infection to the brain, and death.
When the FDA announced its intentions to join other countries and ban quinolone use on U.S. chicken farms, the drug manufacturer Bayer initiated legal action that successfully delayed the process for five years. During that time, Bayer continued to dominate the estimated annual $15 million market, and resistance continued to climb. Nobody was surprised until the ban went into effect and, still, quinolone resistance among the most common Campylobacter strain continued its upward trend, a fact some in the meat industry swiftly used to paint the ban as ineffectual. What these new findings suggest, however, is that the 2005 ban may not be working as well as expected because the poultry industry simply ignored it.
The antibiotic resistance crisis is underscored by the fact that a whopping 80 percent of antimicrobials sold in the U.S. don't go to treat sick people, but are instead used by the meat industry to increase growth rates and prevent disease in overcrowded, squalid environments that serve as the perfect breeding ground for multi-drug resistant "superbugs." Even as far back as 1979, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment warned that "the current dependency on low-level use of antibacterial[s] to increase or maintain production, while of immediate benefit, also could be the Achilles' heel of present production methods."
That Achilles' heel was just struck yet again when a group of consumer organizations won a landmark court case forcing the FDA to honor its decades-old promise to stop factory farms from feeding millions of pounds of penicillin and tetracycline antibiotics to farm animals every year, unless drug sponsors can somehow show the impossible: that these uses of the drugs are safe. The next step is to expand similar restrictions to all classes of antibiotics critical to human medicine by passing the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, H.R. 965/ S. 1211.
But it won't be easy. While this critical public health legislation is backed by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, and more than a hundred other medical organizations, it is opposed by the usual suspects, including the National Turkey Federation and the National Pork Producers Council.
While consumers may be more shocked by pink slime or the feeding of Prozac to poultry, the routine feeding of millions of pounds of human antibiotics to chickens presents a much graver threat. It's time to stop the U.S. meat industry from playing chicken with our health.
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