Livestock production to blame for breeding superbugs

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livestock production

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A new study, fittingly released as the global demand for animal products skyrockets, reveals that 60 percent of all human diseases and 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases (or “superbugs”) are zoonotic – meaning they develop in animals and mutate into human-friendly illnesses.

The study, conducted by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the Institute of Zoology in Britain and the Hanoi School of Public Health in Vietnam, found that just 13 zoonoses are responsible for 2.2 million human deaths a year.

While the diseases can be transmitted by either wild or domestic animals, most human infections are spread by the world’s 24 billion domestic livestock that are increasingly being squeezed into tighter and dirtier spaces.

The unimaginable horror of a concentrated animal feeding operation is paradise for bacteria and viruses that thrive in the overcrowded, filthy conditions that most of our genetically similar meat, dairy and egg-producing animals are forced to live out their miserable lives in.

The study also found that although many of the world’s poor bear the burden of death from the 56 known zoonotic diseases, like tuberculosis, HIV, avian and swine flu, anthrax and hepatitis E, the United States and western Europe are “emerging disease hotspots” for possible outbreaks.

“Exploding global demand for livestock products is likely to fuel the spread of a wide range of human-animal infectious diseases,” said Delia Grace, a veterinary epidemiologist and food safety expert with ILRI in Kenya and lead author of the study.

While this particular study was conducted to access the burden of these diseases on the world’s poor, many more studies are also taking a look at the same threat we are basically exposing ourselves to by our insatiable appetite for cheap and plentiful meat, dairy and eggs for every meal, snack and overindulgence.

According to a small group of researchers, as reported on by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, they found a direct link between poultry and a new antibiotic-resistant E.coli causing urinary tract infections in mostly women through their research in the United States, Canada and Europe.

According to the article, How Your Chicken Dinner is Creating a Drug-Resistant Super Bug, the researchers contend thatthere is persuasive evidence that the bacteria are coming from poultry. More precisely, coming from poultry raised with the routine use of antibiotics, which takes in most of the 8.6 billion chickens raised for meat in the U.S. each year.”

This also helps to explain why the United States is emerging as a zoonose hotspot, especially in the Northeast where factory farms are stuffing egg-laying hens in every pocket of metal-wire cages they can squeeze the poor creatures in to.

It is common knowledge that 80 percent of the antibiotics used in this country are pumped into livestock as a growth promoter and to stave off infections that would otherwise decimate profits as animals succumbed to their hellish conditions. Now researchers have pinpointed a direct link from the meat of one animal to the burning sensation and constant urge to urinate that are the signature symptoms of the urinary tract infections that plague up to 8 million U.S. women every year.

“I see people voting with their feet, buying cheap produce, meat that is less expensive, eggs that are less expensive,” professor of medicine and infectious disease at Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine in Chicago Dr. Jorge Parada said in the article. “My personal point of view is, this is unsustainable in the long run. It has a whole series of side effects that are not negligible, and antibiotic resistance is important among them.”

Like our demand for “cheap” fuel, cheap animal products have a cornucopia of not-so-hidden costs people choose to ignore simply because they are inconvenient. The health of the world and our own bodies is being destroyed because we have somehow convinced ourselves that human rights involve artificially low-cost meat, milk and eggs.

The rising population of livestock and the flood of antibiotics that it demands are not public health’s only enemy when it comes to the too-real threat of zoonotic global pandemics. An article by Tom Philpott over at Mother Jones Magazine, called “Vaccines on Chicken Farms Create Super Virus,” discusses the underreported use of vaccines on factory farms to stave off viral infections, which antibiotics are ineffective against.

Philpott quotes the ScienceNow report from Australia:

Vaccines aren’t supposed to cause disease. But that appears to be what’s happening on Australian farms. Scientists have found that two virus strains used to vaccinate chickens there may have recombined to form a virus that is sickening and killing the animals.

So basically when you kill off all the viruses in a given factory farm, only the crazy strong viruses remain to create a super virus that could mutate into something that prefers human cells.

Philpott leaves us with a promise to look into how vaccines are being used in the United States, but it’s hard to imagine we’re doing any better.

Study after study has left little doubt of the havoc animal products are wreaking on our health., a site dedicated to providing information on good health habits through short Web videos, reports that according to the Nurses Health Study eating just one egg a day equals smoking five cigarettes a day when it comes to mortality.

And we demand more eggs cheaper at the cost of compassion and the environment only to cut our lives short. For those of us who want to live the best lives possible while creating a world where other people and animals can also live a good life, we simply have to enjoy a whole-foods, plant-based diet.

To those who chose meat, eggs and dairy over good health, we could say “to each his own.” But unfortunately, these reports make it painfully clear that there is no such thing as “to each his own” when it comes to livestock production.

My children are at risk of dying from the high percentage of illnesses that are a byproduct of people’s “choice” to overindulge in animal products. It’s hard not to get upset by this fact. I can protect myself and my children from many types of cancers and food-borne bacteria by opting out, but we are still at the mercy of the growing demand for cheap animal meat and excretions when it comes to viral and bacterial pandemics.

I’ve said it before and I’ll continue till the cows get a clue and stop coming home, the only way to even begin solving the myriad of seemingly insurmountable environmental, social and health problems our generation is set to dump on our kids is to switch to a vegetarian diet.

  • Tina Page

    Tina is a journalist and mother of three who's lived all her life in the South Bay of Los Angeles except for a two-year stint in the heart of Spain. She believes humans have the capacity to make this a beautiful world for all species to live, and mothers have a special charge to raise their children to enjoy, love and respect all creatures.

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