I read an article recently about the biggest threat to humankind and surprisingly it was not “global warming” as we all believe it is. The biggest threat to humankind is antibiotic resistance. Scientists and biologists feel that if timely measures are not taken to treat it, it can wipe out the entire human race.
Antibiotics are prescribed by doctors to treat bacterial infections. Due to excessive use of antibiotics to treat common disorders like stomachache, flu, cough, toothache, new strains of bacteria have evolved which are resistant to these antibiotics. Due to this, the bacteria have stopped responding to antibiotics.
The more horrific side of this is antibiotics coming into our bodies from food. The overuse of antibiotics in food-producing animals is being blamed for the increase in resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs.” When these are passed to humans, they can cause serious illness. However, other experts suggest that antibiotic use in food-producing animals poses very little risk to human health but the point is that the risk is there.
Since the 1940s, antibiotics have been given to farm animals like cows, pigs and poultry in order to treat infections or prevent an illness from spreading.
Low doses of antibiotics are also added to animal feed to promote growth. This means a greater production of meat or milk.
These low doses may also reduce animal death rates and improve reproduction. For these reasons, antibiotic use has become widespread in agriculture. In 2011, 80% of all antibiotics sold in the US were for use in food-producing animals.
Antibiotics are generally fine when used properly for treating or preventing infections. However, excessive or inappropriate use is a problem. When antibiotics are overused, they end up becoming less effective for both humans and animals. This is because bacteria that are frequently exposed to antibiotics develop a resistance to them. As a result, the antibiotics are no longer as effective at killing harmful bacteria. This is a great concern for public health.
Resistant bacteria can be passed from food-producing animals to humans in a number of ways.
If an animal is carrying resistant bacteria, it can be passed on through meat that is not handled or cooked properly. You can also encounter these bacteria by consuming food crops that have been sprayed with fertilizers containing animal manure with resistant bacteria. In India, the excessive use of fertilizers and manure is adding to the already existing problem.
Once spread to humans, resistant bacteria can stay in the human gut and spread between individuals.
Resistant bacteria in supermarket foods are much more common than you might think. Commonly reported harmful bacteria from foods include Salmonella, Campylobacter and E.coli.
One report found resistant bacteria in 81% of ground turkey meat, 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef and 39% of chicken breasts, wings and thighs.
Many products claim to be “raised without antibiotics,” including some that are labeled organic. This does not mean these products are free from resistant bacteria.
Evidence suggests that these products still contain resistant bacteria, although they are slightly less resistant than regular products grown using antibiotics.
A study found that organic chickens were more frequently contaminated with bacteria like Salmonella and Campylobacter than non-organic chickens. However, the bacteria in organic chickens were slightly less resistant to antibiotics.
There is no clear-cut evidence directly linking antibiotic use in food-producing animals to increased illness due to resistant bacteria in humans. It may be impossible to completely avoid resistant bacteria in animal foods.
However, there are things you can do to significantly reduce your risk.
Practice good food hygiene: Wash your hands, use separate cutting boards for different foods and wash utensils thoroughly.
Ensure food is cooked properly: Cooking meat to the proper temperature should kill any harmful bacteria.
Buy antibiotic-free foods: You can minimize your risk even further by looking for labels that read organic, raised without antibiotics or antibiotic-free.
Do not pop in antibiotics for minor ailments: Let the doctor decide whether you need an antibiotic or not. Do not take it for everyday ailments.
Finish the course:When on an antibiotic course, always finish the course even if you feel better in three days.
The debate on antibiotic use still continues.
Although there is no evidence that antibiotics in foods harm people directly, most agree that the over-use of antibiotics in food-producing animals is a problem. It can contribute to the development and spread of drug-resistant bacteria, which is a potential risk to public health.