Do you strive to buy antibiotics-free pork chops? Doing so might not just impact your health, but the health of the entire world. The FDA recently reported on the use of antibiotics by the pork industry, finding that its consumption of medically important antibiotics is essentially equal to the use of antibiotics for human medicine.
This means pigs are being fed medicine that was developed to help humans get well. Why? Until January 2017, mostly for money. The industry has learned over half a century that these antibiotics can increase growth and overall herd yield. Now, it’s restricted to use for treatment of swine illnesses — but those are only getting worse too.
Why should you care about pig medicines? Follow me here, because the route is twisty and rides on the wind (literally) until it ends up in you.
First, there’s a growing antibiotic crisis in the U.S. Many bacteria are resistant to almost all methods we have to treat them in patients. For example: Gonorrhea, Staph, CRE, and Pseudomonas are all displaying an ability to adapt and survive most of the medicines we’ve developed for them. Does this mean we need to hoard the antibiotics that still work for when these dangerous superbugs spread? Possibly.
Second, pig farmers don’t just use antibiotics that we need to preserve — they abuse them. U.S. pig farmers are using twice the amount of antibiotics that the United Kingdom does, and three times as much as Canada or France, on a normalized scale of milligrams of medicine per pig. So pig for pig, the U.S. is really over-medicating. There’s no evidence to believe US pigs are generally sicker than Canadian pigs.
Third, the antibiotics lead to resistant germs in the herds. That means a huge herd of animals, many acres of animals, is breeding ground for new diseases that could make us ill or become deadly.
Fourth, and this is the weird part, there’s a vast number of ways for those pigs, whom you will never meet, to cause your infection. Their manure is shot from cannons to fertilize farms growing the food you will eat. Dust carries it everywhere. The runoff of all these pastures and fields goes to rivers, lakes, and oceans, to the fish you eat and the water you swim in. Birds carry resistant bacteria from the fish and fields back to other birds and livestock. So a pig farm in George could be causing infections across the country, as well as locally: people living near swine farms have higher rates of drug-resistant bacterial infections, so this isn’t a theoretical risk: we can and are getting ill from overuse of antibiotics.
Antibiotic resistance isn’t just a fear of the future, it’s a reality today. If we don’t protect ourselves now, when we become ill, we won’t have a treatment. It will be like living in the Civil War, when a splinter could lead to infection, sepsis, and death. The less antibiotics we use, the less infections and deaths we will experience from resistant bacteria.