What sort of antibiotic-resistant pathogens are growing on factory farms, along with all the cheap pork chops and chicken wings? And what level of threat do they pose to our health?
Well, we know that in total, factory-farm animals consume a jaw-dropping four times as many antibiotics as do people in the United States, thanks to diligent reporting by Maryn McKenna andRalph Loglisci and work by Rep. Louise Slaughter(D-N.Y.).
And we know that a kind of antibiotic-resistant staph infection called MRSA now kills more people than AIDS -- and infects people who never set foot in a hospital, which is the site where MRSA is thought to have originated. We also know, due to the stellar work of Iowa State University researcher Tara Smith, that pigs in confined animal feedlot operations, and the workers who tend them, routinely carry MRSA strains (her paper can be found here).
We also know that, by the FDA's own reckoning, meat on grocery store shelves is routinely infected by pathogens resistant to multiple antibiotics (again, McKenna's work brought the FDA's perhaps intentionally obscure report to light).
And now we know of yet another means by which antibiotic-resistant nasties can make their way from meat factories into the broader community: through the cockroaches and flies drawn to the titanic amounts of manure produced on factory farms. For a paper published last month in the journal Microbiology, researchers from North Carolina State and Kansas State universities took one for the team -- i.e., the public. They did something few of us would want to do: rounded up common flies and roaches hanging around factory hog farms, and tested them to see what kinds of bacteria they were harboring.
Their finding? More than 90 percent of the insects sampled carried forms of the bacteria Enterococci that are resistant to at least one common antibiotic, and often more than one.