BERRYVILLE,Va. – Nestled in the hills 90 miles west of Washington sits Smith Meadows,a farm stocked with free-ranging animals who graze on 5,000 acres of land.
As pigs scurried to get mouthfuls of fresh pasture where early morning dew had settled,Forrest Pritchard,a seventh-generation farmer,and his team were preparing to slaughter a flock of 50 grass-fed,antibiotic- and hormone-free turkeys to sell for Thanksgiving.
Pritchard’s farm is one of the first grass-finished farms in the country. He didn’t expect such an unprecedented demand for his livestock when he switched to sustainable farming.
“There’s nothing in these animals’ history,and there is nothing in nature that mirrors our need to medicate these animals,” he said.
Pritchard,who holds a degree in English and geology from the College of William & Mary, went from earning less than $20 from his first harvest in 1996,to running a profitable grass-fed farm.
Last year,the Food and Drug Administration recommended more restraint in the use of antibiotics in livestock,including phasing out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion.
Even though antibiotics are used to kill or prevent bad bacteria from reproducing,individual bugs that survive the antibiotics can grow and potentially create a whole new population of drug-resistant bacteria.
Gail Hansen is the Pew Charitable Trusts’ senior officer for human health and industrial farming,a project aimed at phasing out the overuse of antibiotics in food production.
Hansen said whether someone uses antibiotics for the right purposes or misuses then,every purpose can help drive resistance.
Many scientists say that antibiotics are used for too many reasons other than treating sick animals.
Noting that 9 billion animals are raised annually for food,Hansen said,“Virtually every one of them gets antibiotics at some time,so you have 9 billion places to drive that resistance.”
Resistance spreads in animals when they are given low dosages of antibiotics and develop resistant in their guts,according to a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When the animals are slaughtered,they can still contain drug-resistant bacteria and if the meat is not handled or cooked properly bacteria can spread to humans.
Dr. Scott Hurd is a veterinarian and an associate professor and director of food risk modeling and policy laboratory at Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Hurd said what people don’t realize is farms are like nurseries.
“The goal of a farm is to get the mommas to have babies and to get those babies to the market,” he said. “There are plenty of opportunities for babies to get sick,just like a daycare.”
However,the FDA is taking three steps to promote the judicious use of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals: First,phasing out the use of the drugs for growth promotion and phasing in veterinary oversight; second,collecting public comment about what drugs should be sold to farms; and third,asking the public about the Veterinary Feed Directive regulation that governs the use of certain drugs in animal feed.
William Flynn,FDA’s deputy director for science policy, said his agency is looking at drugs that are used in animals that are also important for human health.
“Many of the antibiotics we rely on for human medical needs are some of the same antibiotics or classes of antibiotics used in animals and animal agriculture,” Flynn said.
These same antibiotics,including penicillin and tetracycline,have been used in animals produced for food since the 1950s.
The FDA is recommending veterinarian oversight on drugs,because most drugs used in animal feed or water are now sold over the counter.
Keith Williams,vice president of communications and marketing for the National Turkey Federation,said farmers use antibiotics so animals won’t suffer. “It’s not only humane,it’s the proper thing to do if you’re going to run a well-ordered business,” he said.
The FDA will spend three years putting the voluntary recommendations into effect. It is up to the drug companies to accept FDA’s recommendations.
“The use of antibiotics in animals or animal agriculture is not the sole cause or driver to this problem,” Flynn said. “It’s one piece to a bigger puzzle.”
Every year,more than 2 million people in the United States get infections that are resistant to antibiotics,and at least 23,000 people die as a result,according to the CDC study
Dr. Steve Solomon,director of CDC’s office of antimicrobial resistance,said a growing concern is that new antibiotics are not being produced at the rate they were from the 1950s to 1980s.
Pharmaceutical companies can make more profit producing drugs people will use every day for a chronic disease,rather than the now-cheap antibiotics taken only occasionally by most people.
Solomon said so much of modern medicine,such as cancer chemotherapy,organ transplants and artificial hips and knees,depends on effective antibiotics.
The CDC has come up with four actions that must be taken to combat resistance: First,to practice stewardship and use antibiotics to fight infections; second,to avoid infections; third to track data on antibiotic-resistant infections,and fourth,to begin developing new drugs,because antibiotic resistant occurs as part of a natural process in which bacteria evolve.
“We’re right on the edge of this cliff,” Solomon said. “I think now that people see if we don’t act in an urgent and immediate way we could go over that cliff and plunge back into this pre-antibiotic or post-antibiotic era.”
Pritchard carefully plucked the feathers from each turkeys’ wing on a recent day. As he thoroughly washed each turkey,Pritchard said his customers range in age,income and background,but all expect the same thing – quality.
He sells the turkeys at a farm stand and farmer’s markets.
“The kind of farming we do is a collaboration with our customers at the end of the day,” he said.
Reach reporter Zahra Farah at [email protected] or 202-326-9868. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.