By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island doesn’t have any factory farms, but most environmentally conscious folks around here know they pose numerous health risks. A big risk comes from the overuse of antibiotics. The bad buzz is they actually create new, stronger bacteria, in addition to the ones they destroy, increasing the risk of consumers getting sick.
Providence recently took a symbolic step to help rein in antibiotics by becoming the first city in the country to support federal restrictions on their use on factory farms.
“The (City) Council takes the issue of public heath very seriously and it is time for federal legislation banning the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock,” council member Seth Yurdin, the sponsor of the resolution, said in a prepared statement.
Yurdin noted that 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States go to livestock production. The widespread use of antibiotics creates strains of bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics, passing on some 2 million illnesses to consumers each year that cause 23,000 deaths, according to a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gus Fuguitt, field organizer for the Providence office of Food & Water Watch, said the excessive use of antibiotics starts with the abusive practice of treating healthy livestock with the drugs as a preventative measure. The routine treatments, he said, are “simply to compensate for filthy conditions on factory farms.”
Factory farms are considered breading grounds for “super bugs,” said Dr. Sarah Davenport, a pediatrician from Woonsocket. During a Feb. 5 press event at the Fertile Underground grocery on Westminster Street, Davenport described seeing children suffer from these bacteria-related illnesses and watching their prolonged recovery. “It’s a really big problem,” she said. “As a pediatrician, I’m supposed to keep the kids from suffering.”
The concentration of livestock ownership has made it difficult to fix the system, Fuguitt said. According to a 2007 University of Missouri-Columbia study, the four largest factory farms control 82 percent of beef packaging, 63 percent of pork packaging and 53 percent of boiler-chicken packaging.
Factory farms are densely packed, making them less sanitary than smaller farms, according to Fuguitt. Animals are given low doses of antibiotics in their feed to help them grow faster and to control infections. Yet, according to a 2011 study by Tufts University researchers Bonnie Marshall and Stuart Levy, these low doses of antibiotics create bacteria with a resistance to the drugs. Viruses can then spread to other animals and humans. New, stronger antibiotics are then required to treat the sick.
“Strains of bacteria that were once only present in high-risk environments are now widespread in the community,” Davenport said.
A 2011 study by the medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that about 50 percent of grocery store meat was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. About 25 percent of this contaminated meat was infected with pathogens that were resistant to several types of antibiotics.
The federal legislation, Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act and Prevention of Antibiotic Resistance Act, would curtail the use of antibiotics on healthy animals. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., is a co-sponsor of the Senate bill.