Genetic Engineering: Antibiotics and the U.S. Meat Supply

Antibiotics and the U.S. meat supply: Modern agriculture focus on genetic engineering, including antibiotics, how bacteria become resistant, livestock, the animal-human link and regulatory stonewall.

| September/October 1985


Nearly half the volume of antibiotics produced in the U. S. each year—about 15,000,000 pounds, worth almost $250,000,000—is fed to animals.


Antibiotics and the U.S. meat supply is an example of how modern agriculture is rushing us into an unintended but dangerous form of genetic engineering. 


Nowadays, it's so simple and inexpensive to take an oral dose of tetracycline or amoxicillin to fight off an infection that most of us take antibiotics for granted. The time may be rapidly approaching, however, when we'll have to learn what it's like to do without these drugs . . . in large part because of the way American agribusiness raises meat!


To understand this bizarre connection, we'll need to review the nature of antibiotics themselves. Antibiotics are chemicals derived from the toxins one microorganism generates to fight off the assault of another.

Though we know that the Chinese used moldy bean curd to treat carbuncles and boils several millennia ago, it wasn't until 1928 that Sir Alexander Fleming discovered that a mold, penicillin, actually killed competing bacteria. When penicillin was synthesized in useful, therapeutic concentrations in 1941, many infectious diseases that had been practically uncontrollable finally became treatable. Between 1943 and 1960, the annual production of penicillin soared—from 29 pounds to 860,000 pounds—and the fatality rates associated with various diseases plummeted.

Truly, the description "wonder drugs" aptly reflected the early success of antibiotics in treating disease. For the first time, doctors had medicine that actually attacked the cause of bacterial disease. However, not long after antibiotics began to see widespread use, scientists discovered an alarming trend. Some bacteria were developing resistance to antibiotics . . . they were effectively selecting for a stronger strain of microorganism! And these resistant bacteria could run rampant when a constant barrage of wonder drugs wiped out their nonresistant competitors.

It was another decade, though, before the full effects of bacterial resistance to antibiotics were felt. In 1968, Shigella dysenteriae (a virulent strain of dysentery) broke out in Guatemala and spread throughout Central America over the course of three years. Doctors assumed that they were dealing with amoebic dysentery when the four antibiotics of choice—streptomycin, tetracycline, chloramphenicol, and sulfonamide—had no effect. By the time the real cause, resistant bacteria, was discovered, tens of thousands had died.

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