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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Pearls Before Swine
distributed 11/1/13 - ©2013

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Harold Palevsky, M.D., and Lorna Lynn of Wynnewood, PA, in honor of Jack Twombly. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Factory farming has brought dramatic changes in how livestock is raised. In this new reality, a few metaphorical words of Jesus can be taken in a surprisingly literal way. His words of warning give us some good guidance for an important matter of public health and legislative action.

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:6b), Jesus said, "do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you."

He didn't mean it literally, but now it is actually true. If we inappropriately give one of our most precious possessions to the hogs, if we throw these "pearls" to them carelessly and mindlessly, then we will lose something of great value, and it will even be turned back against us.

What is this treasured possession that is being wasted on the swine (and many other kinds of livestock)? Antibiotics -- one of the powerful discoveries of modern science, and definitely an essential part of the health-care toolkit. But the over-use of antibiotics on livestock is creating a situation where we face dangerous new infections.

In a succinct description, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC), shows the value of this medical wonder, and names the problem we face:

Antibiotics and similar drugs ... have been used for the last 70 years to treat patients who have infectious diseases. Since the 1940s, these drugs have greatly reduced illness and death from infectious diseases. Antibiotic use has been beneficial and, when prescribed and taken correctly, their value in patient care is enormous. However, these drugs have been used so widely and for so long that the infectious organisms the antibiotics are designed to kill have adapted to them, making the drugs less effective. People infected with antimicrobial-resistant organisms are more likely to have longer, more expensive hospital stays, and may be more likely to die as a result of the infection.

Those resistant organisms -- "super-bugs" -- show up when patients don't follow though with a full course of antibiotic treatments (letting the tough bacteria survive), or when doctors wrongly prescribe antibiotics for viral infections (which only lets the parents feel like they're doing something for a sick kid). But one of the biggest threats comes from modern agriculture, which is over-using and abusing these powerful drugs.

Nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics are used in US food animals each year -- that's four times the amount prescribed for treating human infections. Ninety percent of those drugs are not injected into sick animals. They are put into the food or drinking water of healthy livestock.

Why do livestock producers use so many antibiotics? In the factory farms where animals are packed into crowded pens or cages, low-levels of antibiotics have been used to keep diseases from breaking out at catastrophic levels. As one cartoon put it, "If you take away our antibiotics, we'd have to give livestock room to move around!" The ongoing use of antibiotics also tends to promote weight gain in livestock by disrupting beneficial intestinal bacteria. (That's not just a factor for livestock -- reduced numbers of h. pilori in human stomachs is contributing to the obesity epidemic).

Using lots of antibiotics on hogs, cattle, chickens and turkey adds to the profits of big agricultural producers, but the over-use of those drugs is one of the largest factors contributing to the declining effectiveness of antibiotics for human health. Many kinds of bacteria are now resistant to our best drugs.

We're affected most directly when resistant bacteria are spread through the meat we buy in grocery stores. In 2010, almost 52 percent of chicken breasts tested were contaminated with antibiotic-resistant E. coli, which can turn a routine food poisoning outbreak into a deadly crisis.

While the pathways are harder to track, livestock also can transmit superbugs directly to humans [portside], such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA is especially troublesome in hospitals, prisons and nursing homes, where patients with open wounds, invasive devices, and weakened immune systems are at greater risk of infection than the general public. Recently, a newer form of MRSA is causing infections in healthy people in the community.

The American Medical Association has said, "Antibiotics are one of the most useful and important medical advances in recent history. Their effectiveness, however, is being compromised by bacterial resistance, arising in part from excessive use of antibiotics in animal agriculture."

"Do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you." We've cast our precious and life-saving drugs before swine. The pigs are not the ones mauling us, though. It is the resistant bacteria that are coming back to get us.

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What is to be done about this?

Since the 1990s, the European Union has banned the use of antibiotics in livestock when they are not needed to fight a specific infection -- and their livestock industry is getting along fine. In the US, though, the Food and Drug Administration has only issued voluntary guidelines for drug use, and the FDA does not even have reliable data on what antibiotics are used in livestock operations.

As consumers, we can be responsible by shopping for meat labeled "Raised Without Antibiotics." (Of course, not eating meat at all, or eating less meat, will also help.) But the impact of individual consumers is limited. When the FDA won't act, legislation is required.

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) -- the only microbiologist in Congress -- is the author of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, or PAMTA. The bill would ban non-therapeutic uses of medically important antibiotics in food animal production. She's introduced the bill each session since 2007, and it has been blocked by strong opposition from several industries.

Right now, PAMTA is stalled in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where one source gives it only a 3% chance of making it to the House floor. Your US Representative needs to hear from you about the importance of passing this legislation as a matter of public health.

In Colorado (the home base of Eco-Justice Ministries), Food and Water Watch is working on a petition campaign to have Senator Michael Bennet co-sponsor the Senate version of such legislation (S 1256, the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act). Please let me know if you'd like postcards to Sen. Bennet that you can sign, and that you can circulate in your church and community.

The CDC has named November 18-24, 2013, "Get Smart About Antibiotics Week". Connecting to that week makes the time between now and Thanksgiving a great occasion to speak out and act on the dangers of antibiotic overuse.

Antibiotics are a pearl of great value in protecting public health. Let's take action now so that those pearls are not cast before swine in ways that will hurt us all.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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