Risky Chickens

Bayer Refuses to Withdraw Animal Antibiotic That Causes Drug Resistance in Humans

As Lobb sees it, antibiotics make chickens and turkeys healthier all around. "And if we are what we eat, we're healthier if they're healthier."

Many advocates are arguing just the opposite, of course, decrying the drugs that permeate the entire meat industry. In a recent study by the federal Center for Veterinary Medicine, researchers found that one in five packages of supermarket meat and poultry was infected with microbes, and 84 percent of the bugs were resistant to at least one antibiotic. Most were resistant to several.

The recent threats of bioterrorism have turned this wave of ever bolder microbes from a scientific curiosity into a real public health threat. Anthrax has yet to become resistant to Cipro, but other bacteria have been foiling antibiotics for decades. These drugs, which have vastly increased the safety of everything from surgery to childbirth, may no longer work the way we want them to. And in the wake of September 11, there are untold ways we really may need them.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has renewed its focus on sloppy medicine—like using antibiotics, which kill bacteria, to treat viral infections—which it says accounts for fully one-third of the 150 million prescriptions written for antibiotics each year. And big, mainstream groups including the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization have joined in the call to stop the use of antibiotics in healthy farm animals.

If Baytril is forced off the market, the ban could mark the end of the shortsightedness that's made antibiotics a staple of chicken at the expense of people. "Why the hell aren't we giving a lot more careful thought to using critical human drugs in animals in the first place?" asks David Wallinga, a physician who directs the antibiotic-resistance project for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, an advocacy group based in Minneapolis. "We know that once these drugs lose their effectiveness, we're out of luck."

Click here for a list of New York restaurants that serve antiobiotic-free meat and a list of organic poultry producers.

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