Antibiotic resistance is a vastly underestimated health threat — an estimated 23,000 Americans die each year from drug-resistant infections, including drug-resistant sexually transmitted diseases.
By Dr. Joseph
Story at a glance:
* Antibiotic resistance is a vastly underestimated health threat; an estimated 23,000 Americans die each year from drug-resistant infections, including drug-resistant sexually transmitted diseases.
* Agriculture plays a major role in this; in the U.S., four times as many antibiotics are used in livestock as are used in human medicine.
* When animals are given antibiotics, it causes unnatural growth by altering their gut microbiome. In the process, some of those gut bacteria become antibiotic-resistant. Contaminated meat can then become a source of drug-resistant infections.
* Historically, chickens were scrawny little birds that no one thought to consume as a primary meal on a regular basis. Antibiotics changed this, when it was discovered the drug made the birds grow twice as large, twice as fast.
* Targeted breeding, creating a more full-breasted bird, and federal dietary guidelines called for reducing saturated fat found in beef-fueled consumption of chicken.
Maryn McKenna is an investigative journalist and senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University who has written a number of health-related books.
Her book, “Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats,” exposes many aspects of the chicken industry that most people are completely unaware of.
The book grew out of an interest in antibiotic resistance, which she began investigating about 10 years ago. As noted by McKenna, antibiotic resistance is a vastly underestimated health threat.
An estimated 23,000 Americans die each year from drug-resistant infections, and even though health officials are growing increasingly concerned that drug-resistant STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) are rising at alarming rates, the issue remains largely ignored.
Globally, the death toll attributed to drug-resistant infections is thought to be around 700,000 annually, and it’s only getting worse.
Agriculture plays a major role in this; in the U.S., four times as many antibiotics are used in livestock as are used in human medicine.
On the one hand, scientists warn we need to preserve and protect antibiotics lest they end up losing their effectiveness, and on the other, the food industry is feeding them to animals, most of which are not sick. “That contradiction is what set me on the journey that ended up in this book,” McKenna says.
How it all began
Historically, chickens were rather scrawny little birds that no one thought to consume as a primary meal on a regular basis.
Today, Americans consume an average of 91 pounds of chicken each year. “Chickens are growing fastest in consumption around the world because they’re very easy to raise,” McKenna notes. They don’t require a lot of land, for example, and can eat scraps.
“If we go back to the time of our grandparents and great grandparents, almost everyone raised chickens … But the reason they were there wasn’t primarily to be a meat source. It was to be a source for eggs, because eggs were very inexpensive, very easy to produce protein. For the most part, we ate chicken after a hen’s egg-laying days were done.
“If you imagine a hen that’s been running around for a couple of years chasing chicks around the barnyard, flapping up into a tree to avoid the family dog, scratching for insects … that bird is going to be scrawny and muscular. Not very delicious.
“Probably with a very rich flavor from all of that muscular development, but not tender and juicy the way our chickens are now. The only [exception] would have been … baby roosters … [which are] fed for a couple of months and then sold. They were called spring chickens and were considered uniquely delicious …
“Then, out of a really interesting confluence of accidents, chicken moves forward as a meat source — first, because it turns out that chickens are so easy to raise that farmers in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia … convert from being farmers of vegetables to farmers of chickens …