One of the persistent problems of industrial agriculture is the inappropriate use of antibiotics. It’s one thing to give antibiotics to individual animals, case by case, the way we treat humans. But it’s a common practice in the confinement hog industry to give antibiotics to the whole herd, to enhance growth and to fight off the risk of disease, which is increased by keeping so many animals in such close quarters. This is an ideal way to create organisms resistant to the drugs. That poses a risk to us all.
A recent study by the University of Illinois makes the risk even more apparent. Studying the groundwater around two confinement hog farms, scientists have identified the presence of several transferable genes that confer antibiotic resistance, specifically to tetracycline. There is the very real chance that in such a rich bacterial soup these genes might move from organism to organism, carrying the ability to resist tetracycline with them. And because the resistant genes were found in groundwater, they are already at large in the environment.
There are two interdependent solutions to this problem, and hog producers should embrace them both. The first solution — the least likely to be acceptable in the hog industry — is to ban the wholesale, herdwide use of antibiotics. The second solution is to continue to tighten the regulations and the monitoring of manure containment systems. The trouble is that there is no such thing as perfect containment.
The consumer, of course, has the choice to buy pork that doesn’t come from factory farms. The justification for that kind of farming has always been efficiency, and yet, as so often happens in agriculture, the argument breaks down once you look at all the side effects. The trouble with factory farms is that they are raising more than pigs. They are raising drug-resistant bugs as well.