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Editorial

'Superbugs' in our food

Scientists have warned for decades that routinely feeding antibiotics to poultry and livestock would lead to new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

August 06, 2011

Buyers of poultry products from a Cargill processing plant in Arkansas may have gotten a little something extra with their turkey burgers: a strain of antibiotic-resistant salmonella that is implicated in the death of a Sacramento man and the illness of 79 others around the country. In response, Cargill recalled 36 million pounds of turkey products last week, among the largest food recalls ever. But just because that turkey is off the shelves doesn't mean it's safe to eat undercooked poultry — or any of a host of other foods potentially contaminated by antibiotic-resistant "superbugs."

One of the more disturbing practices at American factory farms is overuse of antibiotics, which are routinely fed to poultry and livestock not to treat illness but to prevent it. Scientists have been warning for decades that this would lead to new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which could result in difficult-to-treat or even incurable illnesses in humans. Such pathogens are now becoming commonplace; on the same day as Cargill's recall, involving meat thought to be contaminated by the drug-resistant S. Heidelberg, French scientists writing in the Journal of Infectious Diseases identified a new salmonella strain called S. Kentucky that is resistant to Cipro, a commonly used antibiotic on factory farms whose medical usefulness is declining rapidly.

The European Union sensibly banned the use of antibiotics in livestock except to treat illness in 2006, but the American farm lobby has succeeded for years in quashing bills that would do the same. The Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, issued voluntary guidelines last year urging farmers not to use antibiotics to encourage livestock growth. It has the power to make such regulations mandatory but has declined to do so. Given that the agency has already deemed that the overuse of antibiotics on farms poses "a serious threat to human health," there's no good reason for such timidity. If Congress won't approve this common-sense regulation, the Obama administration should.

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