5-Questions: World Animal Protection
1. World Animal Protection (WAP) has been putting out some really outstanding reports lately and we love it! In your most recent reports, WAP found antibiotic resistance elements in waters and soils near factory pig farms in four different countries, including the United States. Can you tell us why you decided to conduct this research?
Thank you! We conducted this research to help fill an important knowledge gap. We know that antibiotics are routinely and continuously used in order to prop up low-welfare, intensive farmed animal production and that this overuse is significantly contributing to the spread of bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Even with growing recognition that antibiotic resistance that develops on farms can reach humans through a variety of pathways, causing illnesses and infections that are more difficult to treat and more likely to lead to hospitalizations or death, there is not much research on the persistence and spread of resistance in the environment surrounding farms.
2. What U.S. states did you focus on and why? What are the most significant findings from your research in the United States?
In the U.S. our sampling was conducted near to factory farms in North Carolina because the state has a particularly high concentration of factory pig and poultry operations. Pig production in the U.S. is the largest farmed animal market for medically important antibiotics. This region in North Carolina is also an area where residents are starting to understand the many ways in which these facilities negatively impact their daily lives, their wellbeing, and their health, and are fighting back. Understanding how these farms may be increasing exposure to antibiotic resistance elements adds an important layer to the argument for their elimination. It is alarming that every sample of water and soil collected in this project had a positive result for at least one antibiotic resistance gene. It is particularly significant that the most common resistance elements identified were resistance to tetracyclines. Based on available data, tetracyclines are the most abundantly used antibiotic by the pig industry and are a medically important class of antibiotics used to treat many infections in humans. It is an important correlation. We also found that the relative quantity of tetracycline resistance elements was higher in soils downstream from farms than upstream, further suggesting that the resistance is entering the environment as a result of the farm operations.
Also alarming was the finding of genes associated with ESBL-producing bacteria—a family of bacteria, including Salmonella and E. coli that the World Health Organization (WHO) considers an emerging global threat—in 25% of the samples, and a higher instance in downstream compared to upstream samples. ESBL-producing bacteria are increasingly associated with swine farms and confer resistance to critically important classes of antibiotics.
3. For your international research, you chose Canada, Spain, and Thailand. Why did you choose these countries and what were the most significant findings?
We conducted the same testing in Canada, Spain, and Thailand because they also have an established and growing factory farm industry, especially pigs. Resistance to many of the same classes of important antibiotics were identified in all four countries. In Canada, our testing found resistance genes conferring resistance to tetracyclines, streptomycin, cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones, and macrolides in surface water and sediments. Fluoroquinolones and macrolides are categorized as Highest Priority Critically Important Antimicrobials (HPCIA) by WHO. In Spain, our testing found resistance genes conferring resistance to tetracycline, sulfonamides, cephalosporins, and fluoroquinolones. Genes in surface water samples were up to 200 times higher than baseline levels, and extremely high levels of resistance genes were found in dust samples collected adjacent to the farms. In Thailand, our testing found resistance to third-generation cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones, and colistin, as well as gentamicin and amoxicillin. Third-generation cephalosporins are HPCIAs, and colistin is an antibiotic of last resort that is increasingly rendered ineffective globally by the spread of genetic elements resistant to the drug.
4. What public policy solutions do you think we need to put in place to reform industrial farming in the U.S. and globally to protect public health and improve living conditions for animals?
There are several key policy solutions to reform current farming practices, protect farmed animals, and preserve antibiotics for human health: 1) Set national minimum welfare requirements for farmed animals that reduce crowding and stress, eliminate physical alterations, provide enrichment, and improve the health and immunity of the animals. World Animal Protection, Humane Society International, and Compassion in World Farming developed the Farm Animal Responsible Minimum Standards (FARMS), establishing baseline welfare standards for beef cattle, dairy cattle, laying hens, broiler chickens, and pigs, that the industry should be required to meet or exceed in order to improve conditions for animals and reduce reliance on antibiotics. 2) Prohibit the use of any antibiotics in animal agriculture for disease prevention purposes—use across groups of animals that are “at-risk” of disease but have not been diagnosed with an illness requiring antibiotic treatment. 3) Restrict the use of all antibiotics to treating animals with a diagnosed illness or controlling the spread of a diagnosed illness among animals housed together. Any use of antibiotics should be prescribed by a veterinarian familiar with the operation and animals, should be identified as the most effective antibiotic to treat the situation, and should have a maximum allowed duration of use that is 14 days or less.
5. After conducting this research, what freaks you out? What gives you hope?
We are concerned by the continued resistance from industry in the US to meaningfully reform practices and identify solutions that protect all stakeholders, including the farmed animals. Even with mounting evidence over the past years and decades, industry has been slow to act and has looked to Band-Aid solutions that do not address the underlying issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said we need to stop referring to a looming “post-antibiotic era” in which important medicines will no longer be effective, because we are already in it. We do see hope in the progress occurring in Europe and other parts of the world to improve farmed animal welfare and reduce the use of antibiotics in tandem. Keeping the focus on the pig industry, large pork-producing nations like Denmark and the Netherlands have increased weaning ages, phased out procedures such as tail docking and surgical castration, and eliminating crate confinement, helping the industries reduce overall reliance on antibiotics while improving the lives of farmed animals greatly.