Antibiotic-resistant bacteria annually infect more than 2.8 million people in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention1 reports that more than 35,000 people die each year as a result. But, unlike other threats, this has a clear and well-known cause: the overuse of antibiotics.
Infections triggered by antibiotic resistant bacteria are sometimes impossible to treat and may extend hospital admissions. When antibiotics lose their effectiveness against a particular bacterium it presents a significant and severe public health threat. Many medical procedures require the use of antibiotics, such as when you have organ transplants and joint replacements.
The list of urgent and serious bacterial and fungi threats is growing, including those resistant to carbapenem, an antibiotic of last resort. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are notorious planet polluters. Waste products pollute groundwater, and the gas produced from thousands of confined animals in a small space overwhelms workers and neighbors.
In 2017 the World Health Organization2 called for the elimination of antibiotic use in healthy animals; in that same year the FDA introduced a rule that restricted the sale of antibiotics, requiring a visit to the vet rather than the shelves of a local feed supply store to obtain them.3 As noted in an October 2019 piece published by Modern Farmer, however,
“This is a significant problem in agriculture, as antibiotics are often used not to treat specific diseases, but for prevention or to prevent growth. (They’re also sometimes used in lieu of cleaner, safer facilities.)”
South Dakota Seeks Short-Term Gains for a Long-Term Problem
The inhumane and environmentally devastating CAFO model of agriculture is being rewarded in South Dakota as they seek to reap short-term gains while inviting long-term problems. In 2013 the state began a tax rebate program designed to attract business development. The goal was to entice new industries, thus creating more jobs and raising tax revenues.
In the spring of 2019, the state began offering financial incentives to counties in which new CAFOs were built. Joe Fiala, community development director for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, called livestock operations “one of the few rays of sunshine in the ag economy.”4 Answering concerns about the new rule, he told the Aberdeen News:
“From an economic development standpoint, generally these types of projects, livestock- development projects, enhance our tax base because they’re putting up buildings and paying property taxes. And they’re also providing new jobs for the state, and in general they’re paying a good wage and offering good benefits.”
Kathy Tyler (HR-D 2013-2014) adamantly opposes the financial incentives to counties in exchange for new CAFOs. She said the tax rebate comes from the developer, which is then given to the state and passed to the county, which boils down to a developer paying the county to approve a project:
“It’s bribery, pure and simple. If I went to a zoning meeting and offered them $ 400,000 to not permit a facility, I would be put in jail for bribery.”
At the end of 2019 there were four projects submitted for approval, including a soybean processing plant, two pig barns and a dairy operation. One of the proposed sow barns promised to produce 145,000 piglets every year, along with 19 full-time positions for workers and a $ 1.27 million annual payroll.
During a public meeting with the county commissioners, concerns were raised over the location, manure management and water use. Before the vote when the CAFO was eventually approved, Commissioner James Wangsness spoke to Aberdeen News. Without mentioning the anticipated environmental impact and damage to neighboring properties, he said:
“It’s another piece of the puzzle and it is a big deal as far as the tax potential and the economic growth because it’s a big facility and we just don’t get those. It’s a pretty cool benefit, but it’s not impacting my feeling on this project. It’s just a big elephant in the room that we have to walk around because now everyone is accusing us of being bought and that’s just not true.”
Farmers Stop Public Health Officials From Doing Their Job
The owners of hog farms headed to South Dakota may have the same objections to inspections on their premises as the farmers in Montana, whose operations were potentially identified by Dr. Scott Lindquist as the origin of an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella.5 Lindquist serves as an epidemiologist for the Washington State Department of Health.
In an interview with Leslie Stahl of CBS News, Lindquist recounted what happened after an outbreak in which an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people became ill. He traced the source to a slaughterhouse where bacteria were cultured. Unable to determine whether the slaughterhouse was the origin, he requested access to the farms that had sent livestock, so he could take samples.
However, Lindquist received a letter from Liz Wagstrom of the National Pork Producers Council, the primary lobbying group for the industry, denying access. She said: “I know that you do not want any inadvertent negative consequences to farms as a result of this proposed on-farm sampling.”
In what appeared to be a comment expressing more concern about the consequences to farms than to consumers, Wagstrom held her ground and refused access. During her interview with Leslie Stahl, Wagstrom defended her position by saying five months had passed since the beginning of the outbreak.
She asserted it would have been too late to determine if the salmonella DNA on the farm and at the slaughterhouse were identical. Lindquist was seeking more information with the hope of reducing the number of people getting sick. He offered to maintain the confidentiality of the farms from which the samples were taken.
When pressed, Wagstrom raised a concern about biosecurity, saying anyone entering the farms needs to shower and shampoo so they don’t carry disease to the livestock. Even an offer of submitting to those disinfecting guidelines did not sway Wagstrom.
CAFO Farmers Operate Their Businesses From Boardrooms
Lance Price, microbiologist at George Washington University, also expressed concerns that federal inspectors were not allowed to take samples without the farmers’ permission, making it nearly impossible to trace where tainted products may have originated.
Ultimately, the concern is that antibiotic resistant bacteria are being spread through tainted meat for which physicians do not have effective antibiotics. Although the pathogens can be killed during cooking, opening tainted meat in the house can release the bacteria into the kitchen, increasing the risk of illness.
CAFOs began using antibiotics to fight disease in crowded conditions but soon found they also helped the livestock to grow faster while eating less food. Price shared that, currently, most hogs are raised on industrial farms, with some of them owned by foreign companies.
He says that some multinational companies are hiding behind the portrait of the small American farmer, an image that generates sentiments of protection in most of the U.S. However, Price points out it’s not the guy in overalls who owns these CAFOs, but rather
“ … a guy in a suit with a Maserati, you know? I mean, this is — these are — these are big companies that we are protecting. And by protecting them, we’re hurting ourselves.”
When Wagstrom was asked about the use of preventive antibiotics and overcrowding she said, “That would be an improper stocking density.” Yet, as Stahl points out, farmers are denying oversight, so there is no way to be sure.
Sidestepping another issue, Stahl asked if Wagstrom would support a regulation mandating that farmers report the amount of antibiotics used on livestock. She replied, “I would support discussion around trying to figure out how to collect that data.”
Dancing to the Tune of Big Agriculture
Price also expressed concern over a new regulation the pork industry lobbied to enact that lifted a number of important oversight requirements. The USDA claims they are modernizing the process, yet Price says, “I don’t see modernization. I see just straight-up deregulation in an industry that you want regulated.”
The new regulation allows the slaughterhouse and companies to set the speed at which the carcasses are processed. Prior to this change, the limit was 20 per minute; the new regulation lifts all limits. In the old system inspectors examined each carcass. However, the number of inspectors is also reduced by 40%, with processing inspections taken over by plant employees who may or may not be trained to do so.
CAFO farms are the subject of a book called “Pig Tales,” written by The New York Times best-selling author Barry Estabrook, who set out to explore and write about the pork industry. He discovered that Big Ag wields enormous power in states like North Carolina, home to many CAFOs. He describes that power:6
“Politically, wherever pork is produced in large quantities, Big Ag is king. You think of states such as North Carolina, Iowa and Minnesota. Big Ag is a very, very, very powerful political force. It doesn’t matter whether the politicians are Democrats, Republicans or Libertarians; they dance to the tune of Big Agriculture.”
CAFO Farms Create Disease Carriers and Are Deadly
The use of antibiotics in livestock is regulated by the FDA. Before 2013, CAFOs had the option of using antibiotics for weight gain. Currently, the FDA guidelines ask pharmaceutical companies to:7
“ … voluntarily remove growth enhancement and feed efficiency indications from the approved uses of their medically important antimicrobial drug products, and move the therapeutic uses of these products from over-the-counter (OTC) availability to marketing status requiring veterinary oversight.”
The use of antibiotics for disease prevention in large, overcrowded environments is still allowed under the FDA’s guidelines. In 2015, Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae bacteria was found on a U.S. pig farm.8 Carbapenem is one of the antibiotics of last resort.9
The finding is surprising as it’s illegal to use this antibiotic, crucial to human medicine, in food-producing animals.10 The addition of antibiotics to livestock feed increases the risk of antibiotic resistant bacterial growth. Organisms responsible for infectious diseases in humans, such as cryptosporidium, E. coli and salmonella, are common in livestock manure.11
They are a normal part of livestock gut microbiome and can grow in high concentrations. In some instances, they are beneficial to digestion in livestock. The bacteria are excreted in the manure and oftentimes that manure is sprayed onto fields as fertilizer. The excess can leach into the groundwater and waterways, which concerned wildlife services for waterfowl protection in South Dakota.
Fumes from the manure pits are so toxic that it caused the death of a father and son at an Iowa pig farm when they were trying to repair a pump.12 They were the second father and son to die in the Midwest in July 2015, overcome by noxious gas from manure pits.
Given that these fumes are regularly pumped outdoors, it’s not surprising that people living near Iowa CAFOs have elevated rates of respiratory symptoms compared to those who live elsewhere.13
Sustainable Farms Reduce Risks to the Land and People
Regenerative farming practices produce healthy soil and great success for the farmers who practice it; Will Harris is one such farmer. He is from White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, and runs a successful farm that produces high-quality grass fed products.
His focus changed from figuring out how many heads of cattle he could feed to building a process that feeds microbes in the soil, which in turn helps crops yield more every year. Working with natural cycles, he and other regenerative farmers have improved productivity and carbon sequestration.
There are several organizations that may help you source farm-fresh food in your local area. For a list of those and a discussion of regenerative farming practices, see, “How Regenerative Farming Methods Can Restore Ecology and Rebuild Communities.”