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SXSW Eco: Fighting Superbugs on the Farm to Save Antibiotics

Addie Broyles

It would be hard to fathom a world in which doctors recommended that patients take low levels of antibiotics every day to keep humans healthy.

Normally, doctors only give you antibiotics when you’re really sick, and then, ask you take the entire course of drugs so that the bacteria are fully eliminated.

But everyday, millions of pigs, cows and chickens are getting low-level doses of antibiotics in their feed, not to cure sickness, but to make them grow faster and help them survive substandard living conditions.

The result is a public health crisis that was the subject of one of the first panels of South by Southwest Eco on Monday that featured Naomi Starkman, co-founder of, Jason Newland, a pediatric physician in Kansas City, Sasha Lyutse of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Russ Kremer, a fifth generation pork producer from Missouri who nearly died after contracting a superbug from one of his pigs in the late 1980s.

“We have lived for a long time expecting that if we get sick, we can take drugs and get better, but we are facing the prospect of a world in which the drugs do not work,” Newland said, citing the drastic increase in recent years of infections from so-called superbugs like MRSA, VRE and FQRP.

What happens when 80 percent of antibiotics used in this country go to animals, not to treat sickness but as part of their normal feed regimen? The weak bacteria get killed off but the strong bacteria survive, and these antimicrobial-resistant organisms start to spread to the soil and water, and, more alarmingly, to the intestines of workers on the farm and the very meat sold in stores.

Antibiotic-resistant superbugs lead to more than 23,000 American deaths every year, more than the number of people who die from HIV/AIDS.

One of the most interesting perspectives came from Kremer, a fifth generation pork farmer in mid-Missouri who contracted a superbug in 1989 that nearly killed him.

“Like alcoholics, we got hooked on this stuff,” he says, “but the food we are producing is killing people.”

After that incident, Kremer, a former president of the Missouri Pork Association, says he was able to “kick the drug habit” and has spent the past two decades trying to persuade fellow farmers to do the same.

He saved $16,000 that first year and now uses animal husbandry and management practices, including using probiotics, enzymes and natural ingredients like oregano oil, to keep his animals healthy.

Lyutse says that we’re already seeing some progress from companies like Chipotle, Fresh Direct, Applegate and Panera because of consumer demand, “but, if we just wait for the market to take care of this, it will be too late to fix it,” she said. Since 2011, the NRDC has won two lawsuits against the Food and Drug Administration to end the use of antibiotics in animal feed, but for now, the agency has only issued voluntary guidelines to farmers about reducing their use and has appealed both of the rulings, Lyutse says.

Starkman says that consumers who eat meat can look for products that carry labels for USDA Certified Organic, American Grassfed Certified, Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane, and that if your grocery store doesn’t carry many of these options, talk to the employees at the meat counter about your concerns. Chances are, they aren’t excited about the idea of selling meat carrying antibiotic-resistant bacteria, either, Starkman says.