During the autumn round of Community Conversations in Portland, OR and Seattle and Spokane, WA, we discussed the concern that ongoing antibiotic use in large-scale commercial chicken farms is producing antibiotic resistant (ABR) bacteria that contribute to more difficult-to-treat human diseases. In a 2014 report on antibiotic (ABX) resistance, the World Health Organization warns of humanity heading for a “post-antibiotic” era in which antibiotics can’t keep up with ABR and the diseases they cause.
Who are the stakeholders in this situation? Large- and small-scale farmers, consumers, researchers looking for new drugs that kill bacteria and medical professionals who want healthy patients. With all these stakeholders, how are we to address this potential public health crisis?
The One Health Initiative holds that human, animal and environmental health are all connected. ABX use practices in food animal agriculture are of particular interest, but not everyone agrees that there is sufficient evidence that the use of ABX in chickens (or other food animals) directly results in ABR infections in people.
Despite expected regional differences, participants in the Conversations were united in several areas. One, we simply need more data. The Food and Drug Administration only recently (2009) began collecting sales data for antimicrobials in food-producing animals. No one is sure what is actually being used. Legislation attempts to limit ABX use and require record-keeping both federally and in some states, including Oregon, have not garnered enough support. Two, consumer education needs are high. We are inundated with messaging and food labeling that is sometimes great marketing (rBST-free!—but there isn’t a significant difference in the milk from cows treated or not with rBST) but low on information (how are egg-laying hens treated if they are cage free?). Many of us still believe that if we have a cold for more than 3 days we are good candidates for antibiotics. Three, the conversation tends to use rhetoric that is sensationalized and prevents authentic discussion. For example, “factory farms are overusing antibiotics and are mostly responsible for this crisis.” Toxic rhetoric.
Participants rallied around some practical action items. People committed to investigating the meaning of food labels. People committed to better hand washing and to touching their faces less often (did you know 30% of people carry MRSA in their nose?). Many also committed to sharing their new knowledge both professionally and personally.
All in all, this round of Community Conversations was high in energy and commitment to better living through smarter consumption of food, data and antibiotics.
Many thanks to our facilitators Kathy Hessler, JD, LL.M and Emma Newton, MS (Portland); Heather Fowler, VMD, MPH and Paul Pottinger, MD (Seattle); and Doug Call, PhD (Spokane). Thank you to our Spokane Series Sponsor, Whitworth University.