February 14, 2011

Superbugs: another case for free-range farming

chickenPhoto by StevenW. via Flickr

Last night I watched a shocking episode of CBC Marketplace about superbugs in supermarket chicken. I knew about the routine use of antibiotics in factory farm animals — which account for most of our meat production, the most popular of which is chicken — but the degree to which antibiotic-resistant bacteria (aka superbugs) have developed is a disturbing new revelation. Daily use of antibiotics, often the same ones administered to sick humans, are being given to healthy and ill chickens alike. If chickens, cows, pigs and so forth had a natural diet and weren’t kept in such cramped conditions, the incidence of disease would be extremely low. Antibiotics wouldn’t be necessary, preventative or otherwise. Disease outbreaks would also be uncommon.

The human health threat posed by the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria — found on two-thirds of the 100 chicken packages sampled — has the potential to return us to pre-1930s conditions, says the study. Is the public health risk really worth cheaper chicken prices?

Antibiotics also kill the helpful bacteria in our gut, so I can only imagine how sick the patients profiled in this episode are from multiple attempts to cure their antibiotic-resistant infections.

This is just another reason among many — animal ethics, environment and others — to return to sustainable farming methods.

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Note: I am writing solely on my own behalf, and do not claim to represent the David Suzuki Foundation or its views here.