Resistance to antibiotics is a growing global problem. Two years ago, a 49 woman in Pennsylvania had a urinary infection with bacteria that were resistant to any available antibiotics. These superbugs are a nightmare. This was the first time such case showed up in the United States. It means that infections will become untreatable. Like in the past, surgery will become dangerous because of the risk of infections. For decades, experts have warned for resistance. New antibiotics are not in the pipeline, and the therapeutic arsenal of modern medicine against the traditional killers is becoming ineffective. The World Health Organization has called antibiotic resistance one of the biggest threats to global health. Each year, at least 700,000 people die because of this threat, especially the global poor.
One of the reasons for this problem is over-use and over-prescription. People with common cold expect their physician to prescribe antibiotics, and many do. Already as medical students we learned that this is a medical error. Another reason is that in many developing countries antibiotics are available over the counter without prescription. Another growing problem is fake medication. Ten percent of all antibiotics are falsified. A reason that is not often mentioned is the use of antibiotics in the food industry. Industrial animal farming in the United States consumes 80% of all antibiotics used in the country. The drugs are given to promote growth or to prevent diseases. This use is purely commercial. The European Union banned non-therapeutic antibiotics use in livestock in 2006. This was not an easy decision. Animal health experts were opposed, and commercial interests were strong. In the US the emphasis is on voluntary action despite a long series of reports and studies since 1972. In 2014, only 5 percent of the meat sold in the US was free of antibiotics. However, consumers are more and more demanding antibiotic free meat. Some businesses are switching farming methods. Protesters started the Good Food Now campaign and are putting pressure on restaurants chains, such as Olive Garden, to serve clean food.
The concerns about antibiotics in food play an important role now in the Brexit negotiations. Do the people in Britain want to eat beef and chicken imported from the US with high levels of antibiotics (and growth hormone)? Once the European rules are no longer valid, they are at the mercy of American trade interests. The US under-secretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs told British farmers recently that he was “sick and tired” of all the worries about low food standards and chlorinated chicken. What counts is business, not health or food safety.
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