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Going Organic Cuts Poultry Farms' "Superbug" Bacteria in Single Generation

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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."

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

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