The leaves are changing colors and the air is getting crisp. As we settle into fall, Americans take time to reflect on what they’re thankful for.
Like many folks, I’ve got plenty of gratitude for the most important meal I’ll eat this month. Sweet potatoes, stuffing, pecan pie… My mouth is already watering just thinking about it. But the real centerpiece is the turkey, which — thanks to Norman Rockwell — evokes feelings of homecoming, family, and love.
Yet when I look at the turkey on my family’s table this year, it will evoke a very different emotion: terror.
Unless your turkey came of age on an organic farm, there’s a good chance it was pumped full of antibiotics. The overuse — and misuse — of these life-saving drugs on factory-farmed animals is making them less effective for humans.
In fact, at least 70 percent of the medically important antibiotics sold in the United States are wholesaled for use on poultry, cattle, and hog farms.
Factory farming crams thousands to tens of thousands of animals into tiny confined spaces, which can lead to disease outbreaks that threaten the industry’s bottom line. As a precautionary measure, factory farmers add antibiotics to farm feed and apply them in huge volumes to animals that aren’t sick.
This steady diet of anti-bacterial drugs breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the animals’ guts. Those bugs wind up in their excrement, which can filter into our food, air, and water — exposing humans.
The terrifying part is that these drug-resistant bacteria render our usual remedies ineffective. Infections that were once easily treatable can become deadly when our drugs stop working. And hospitals are reporting large increases in antibiotic-resistant infections.
In Maryland, where I work, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found an increase in infections on the Eastern Shore, where most of our large chicken farms are located. Unsurprisingly, research also shows a much higher rate of antibiotic resistance in farmworkers, who are in close contact with these animals.
Other countries, including Denmark, have phased out antibiotic abuse for their livestock without jeopardizing productivity. Here at home, some states are following their lead.
California just passed landmark legislation curtailing the practice. States like Maryland and Oregon are considering measures that would go even further to protect public health.
More than once around this time of year, I’ve counted myself thankful for effective antibiotics. When I got a throat infection that left me bedridden a few years ago, I could rely on penicillin to help me recover. And when I suffered from a particularly nasty case of gastroenteritis last year, one round of antibiotics cured all my symptoms.
The next time I contract a bacterial infection, will I be so lucky? Will you?
We need to protect this sacred resource — and we can start by banning the use of unnecessary antibiotics in animal farming. Because no turkey should be terrifying.
OtherWords commentaries are free to re-publish in print and online — all it takes is a simple attribution to OtherWords.org. To get a roundup of our work each Wednesday, sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.