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Going Organic Cuts Poultry Farms’ “Superbug” Bacteria in Single Generation

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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poultry farm

Image courtesy of: Amy Sapkota/University of Maryland

The government has come under fire this week for revelations that it knew about antibiotic resistant Salmonella in poultry products that has killed at least one person and sickened more than 100 across the country. Although this is one of the largest turkey recalls—affecting some 36 million pounds of ground turkey—the prevalence of bacteria that is immune to common drugs is on the rise on animal farms, which is where the bulk of U.S. antibiotics get used.

But by going organic, poultry farms can cut the amount of antibiotic resistant bacteria in a single generation by nearly five times, according to a new study published online this week in Environmental Health Perspectives.

“We were surprised to see that the differences were so significant across several different classes of antibiotics even in the very first flock that was produced after the transition to organic standards,” Amy Sapkota, of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, and co-author of the new study, said in a prepared statement.

The team studied Enterococci bacteria, which are common in poultry and are also frequently found in hospitals and can become immune to antibiotic treatments, making them “a good model for studying the impact of changes in antibiotic use on farms,” Sapkota said. In humans, the bug can cause urinary tract infections, blood infection, inflammation of the heart and even meningitis. And when these bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, infections are harder—and sometimes impossible—to treat with available drugs.

Farmers can’t expect to get rid of the bacteria altogether, but by cutting down on the birds’ exposure to antibiotics, the amount of bacteria that builds up resistance is not only possible, but also quick. The first generation of poultry that was raised organically at previously conventional farms had way less of the superbug breed of bacteria. Tests of the feed, water and poultry litter showed that on 10 newly organic farms, about 17 percent of the Enterococci bacteria was resistant to multiple classes of antibiotics, whereas on 10 farms that continued to raise their birds via conventional methods with prophylactic antibiotic use, some 84 percent of the bacteria had developed multi-drug resistance.

“These findings show that, at least in the case of Enterococci, we begin to reverse resistance on farms even among the first group of animals that are grown without antibiotics,” Sapkota said. “It’s very encouraging.”

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. kclancy 8:45 pm 08/12/2011

    Wow, what an interesting correlation. What was it about organic farming that seemed to reduce the incidence of these resistant bacteria? Was it reduced use of the antibiotics, or was it also the poultry living conditions (I assume organic standards involve the birds having more living space)?

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  2. 2. da bahstid 6:09 am 08/13/2011

    I’m not the researcher and I’m speaking speculatively, but I would suspect the difference was still predominantly due to less antibiotic use.

    Resistance to antibiotics costs bacteria metabolic energy. These emerging superbugs that have resistances to several classes of potent antibiotics simultaneously have to expend tremendous amounts of their energy to retain that resistance compared to their unprotected cousins. Remove the antibiotics, and what we’ve been calling “superbugs” are actually at a substantial selective disadvantage.

    Not to say there isn’t some possibility that larger living spaces might help also…say non-resistant bacteria are lighter and smaller due to reduced protein synthesis and can thus travel airborne over longer distances, while heavier superbugs cannot, and this ends up being more crucial when the chickens are not sitting couped up next to each other 24/7.

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  3. 3. janeskid 1:16 pm 08/13/2011

    “in a single generation by nearly five times” – does this mean cut to nearly 20% or does this mean cut to nearly 1/32?

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  4. 4. da bahstid 3:22 pm 08/13/2011

    84% were resistant prior to dumping antibiotics versus 17% after.

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  5. 5. rhmoore 4:33 pm 08/14/2011

    What exactly does it mean to “go organic”?

    The study’s conclusion is: “Our findings suggest that the voluntary removal of antibiotics from large-scale U.S. poultry farms that transition to organic practices is associated with a lower prevalence of antibiotic-resistant and MDR Enterococcus.”

    As has been alluded to by previous comments: the connection seems to be between the voluntary removal of antibiotics and lower bacterial contamination and not necessarily a nod to organic poultry production as a whole.

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  6. 6. samonwatson2011 10:23 am 08/15/2011

    The study’s conclusion is: “Our findings suggest that the voluntary removal of antibiotics from large-scale U.S. poultry farms that transition to organic practices is associated with a lower prevalence of antibiotic-resistant and MDR Enterococcus.”
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  7. 7. rwstutler 4:31 pm 08/16/2011

    “These findings show that, at least in the case of Enterococci, we begin to reverse resistance on farms even among the first group of animals that are grown without antibiotics,” Sapkota said. “It’s very encouraging.”

    It seems that not using antibiotics is the key, or at least part of the key. One does wonder though, what does it mean, to adopt “organic standards”? that is asside from not using antibiotics inb the feed …

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