Friday, March 14, 2014

Factory Farm Antibiotics

Q:   How did farmers get addicted to feeding antibiotics to their farm animals?

A:   Money

In a recent New York Times article, The Fat Drug, we get a history lesson on how Lederle Laboratories started feeding its antibiotic Aureomycin to chickens to test it effects in 1948.  The chickens who got their regular feed plus the antibiotic grew faster, and gained twice the weight of the control group.

Faster and greater weight gain is equivalent to money.  Further testing on pigs, cows, and sheep proved it was universal.  Soon, they learned that they could keep the expensive drug for humans willing to pay the big price, but the waste products produced during the manufacturing of the antibiotics were equally potent for the animal feed supplement market.  The drug manufacturing wastes that previously had to be disposed at additional cost could now be sold to farmers as a feed additive; thereby giving the pharmaceutical companies a double dip of profits.

It was a marriage made in heaven.  Farmers couldn't get enough of it.

Unfortunately, few thought about the negative consequences or side effects; neither for the animals, nor those humans who would eventually eat those animals as food.

We know that there are about 1,100 different species of bacteria in the human gut around the world.  Most of those species are localized to certain geographical regions, groups, or families.  Each individual has a sub-set of around 150 species in their gut.  Those species form a community of around 100 Trillion bacteria in the typical human gut; called a microbiome.  Most of these bacteria need very specific growing conditions, and are unable to live a normal life outside the human gut, nor away from all the other microbes in the gut.

E.coli is one of the exceptions to this rule, and is quite happy living anywhere as long as you feed it.  That is why it becomes a problem when our food or hands become contaminated with E.coli.  We tend to be infected by huge colonies of E.coli that overwhelm the microbiome in our gut, giving us food poisoning.

Over time, as the experiment continued, tragic failures with many victims taught us some of the consequences for the farmer's greedy actions.  The government soon passed regulations about drug withdrawal times, so that minimal or no antibiotic residue could be found in the meat.  However, the meat that was grown under this antibiotic-induced altered state still remains on the animal.  How has the meat been changed by these life-long dosing of antibiotics?

Changing the gut changes everything.  For example, there is a recognized human medical treatment called Fecal Bacteriotherapy, or "stool transplant".  This is where stool (ie. feces) is transferred from one person to another so as to inoculate their bowl with different microbes, so as to help cure the recipient of some disease (eg. treating C. difficile  infections with over 90% success, when all available antibiotics have failed).

It has been found that if you do a stool transplant from a fat person to a skinny person, the skinny person will start to rapidly gain weight.  Similarly, if you do a stool transplant from a skinny person to a fat person, the fat person will rapidly begin to lose weight.  The gut, and the type and strength of microbes present there effect everything else in our bodies.

When farmers are messing with the microbes in the gut of farm animals, it's like the Sorcerer's Apprentice; they have no clue about what they are messing with.  Dr. Blaser and his colleagues have been studying these issues for decades, which will be summarized in their book “Missing Microbes” due out in April 2014.

Remember, there are about 100 Trillion bacteria cells in our gut, but our human body is estimated to have just 37.2 Trillion cells, so "we" (the human cells) are only 27.1% of "WE" (gut bacteria + human cells)   ie. 37.2/(37.2+100)*100%= 27.1%
The normal microbiome of a farm animal is totally disturbed when you feed it antibiotics.  That upset has been found to continue for weeks, months or years after the antibiotic doses have been stopped.  The entire metabolism of the animal is disrupted when antibiotics are fed.  It truly becomes "mystery meat", possibly quite different from what we have evolved and grown accustomed to eating for the last 300,000 years of human existence.

Some of those metabolic changes can be tested for today, but our knowledge is very limited.  A mere 60 years of experience compared to 300,000 years of human evolution is less than a blink of an eye.  We are truly conducting a live experiment with ourselves as the human guinea pig.

Unfortunately, the antibiotics allow faster weight gain, and also allow the raising of the animals in congested, un-natural housing on un-natural feed so as to maximize factory farm profits.  Without these necessary ingredients, factory farms would never exist.

Perhaps we will soon learn our lesson about settling for the cheapest, the lowest common denominator, and the propaganda of Big Food advertising.

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