Meat-Fueled Superbug Crisis? New Republic Fibs About Antibiotic Resistance

By Cameron English — May 17, 2024
The online magazine claims "the meat industry is pumping livestock full of antibiotics." Like many other farm-bashing headlines, this one is greatly exaggerated.
Image by engin akyurt via Unsplash

Journalists are an easily spooked bunch. Where scientists see a problem in need of a solution, the press often sees an unmitigated crisis that can only be solved by fundamentally changing our way of life.

The fact that this wild-eyed perspective rarely aligns with the evidence matters little. Indeed, the more divorced from reality the narrative is, the more likely it seems that the media will run with it. Consider this recent story by The New Republic (TNR) deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. “American Farms Have a Drug Problem,” the ominous headline on her May 17 article warned. “The meat industry is pumping livestock full of antibiotics, exacerbating drug resistance in humans.”

My compliments on a well-written headline, but the situation isn’t nearly so dire. This story – like most of the hostile press coverage directed at modern agriculture – is devoid of critical context and meant to scare rather than inform.

Facts about antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance is a very serious public health concern. It causes approximately 35,000 deaths in the US each year and boosts our healthcare costs by more than $20 billion annually. Drug-resistant infections themselves can be fatal and they make routine surgical procedures far more risky.

Misuse of antibiotics is an important contributor to the problem; for instance, 30 percent of outpatient antibiotic prescriptions in 2015 were unnecessary. However, improper prescribing is far from the only issue: selection pressure, poor sanitation, wildlife spread, inadequate sewage disposal and global migration are also major factors.

Research on novel antibiotics appears to be progressing (more on that later), but for decades the failure to discover new molecules meant that we were increasingly dependent upon existing drugs, which also increased the risk of resistance.

There is no single villain we can blame, in other words.

How much blame should agriculture get?

TNR briefly acknowledged that “Drug resistance is a complicated, multifaceted problem,” but then abruptly turned to restrictions on agricultural use as “one really large lever we could pull that would make it much more manageable.” This is simply false. In fact, “There is no evidence that agriculture is ‘largely to blame’ for the increase in resistant strains,” the authors of a 2015 analysis concluded.

Horn didn’t cite that study nor any of the others that have failed to find a significant connection between drug-resistant infections in humans and agricultural antibiotic use. Instead she relied on a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and alleged that total US agricultural use of antibiotics, as measured by weight, increased from 2017 to 2020. This is a convenient metric if you want to report alarming increases in chemical exposure–NRDC’s entire reason for being–though it’s an imprecise and unhelpful proxy for actual drug use.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that “Estimates of antibiotic use are difficult to calculate and there is no global ‘gold standard’ for such a metric.” Individual on-farm studies use a variety of reasonable measures, including number of animals receiving a drug, disease indication, age, estimated weight, dose administered and length of administration.

These much more granular statistics tell a very different story than TNR’s: antimicrobial use has declined substantially in many cases. According to a 2020 study of the US broiler chicken industry:

“The use of antimicrobials in the hatchery decreased substantially between 2013 and 2017; the approximate percentage of broiler chicks placed that received hatchery antimicrobials decreased from 93% in 2013 to 17% in 2017. Medically important in-feed antimicrobial use decreased substantially. For example, in-feed tetracycline use decreased approximately 95% between 2013 and 2017.

Medically important water-soluble antimicrobial use decreased substantially for most antimicrobials. Between 2013 and 2017, water-soluble penicillin use decreased approximately 21%, water-soluble tetracycline use decreased approximately 47%, and water-soluble lincomycin use decreased approximately 28%”

Importantly, the researchers highlighted the problem with reporting single statistics the way NRDC did:

“Due to differences in dose and potency/molecular weight of antimicrobial substances across classes and route of administration, reporting a single total amount would not be biologically informative, would not reflect how each individual antimicrobial substance was actually used and has been cautioned against (US Food & Drug Administration).” [my emphasis]

Suspect sales data

The other potentially misleading statistic reporters love to throw around is total sales. “Over two-thirds of all antimicrobials sold globally wind up in farm animals—73 percent, by some estimates,” TNR lamented.  But as the USDA again counters, “‘Use’ and ‘sales’ data are not the same. Further, differences in animal populations, weights, and production practices differ between countries and can influence results.”

Aggregating sales data does not give us the specificity we need to measure antibiotic use, let alone resistance. “These sales and distribution data only reflect the total quantity of antimicrobial drug product that enters the market,” the FDA adds, “and does not represent how much or in what way these drugs are ultimately used.” However, if antibiotic sales decline, that necessarily means fewer of them enter the market. That’s precisely the trend FDA reported in 2023 for medically important drugs:

“Domestic sales and distribution of medically important antimicrobials approved for use in food- producing animals … decreased by 36% from 2015 (the year of peak sales) through 2022.”

A related and vitally important point is that a significant portion of the antibiotics sold for agricultural use belong to a class known as “Ionophores,” which are only used in animals and, per the USDA, “are not known to promote resistance to antimicrobials of human importance.” A 2022 FDA analysis, for example, found that these antibiotics accounted for 38% of agricultural sales during the previous year (p 12). Put simply, total sales is an inflated figure that exaggerates the risk of antibiotic resistance.

Ideology over science

The ultimate problem with TNR’s coverage was its clear ideological spin. There are a variety of ways to manage antibiotic resistance. Strict regulations on which drugs can be prescribed for animals, who can prescribe them and for what purpose help limit misuse. Vaccines can immunize animals against bacterial infections, reducing the need for antibiotics. Gene-editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 could be used to prevent the spread of resistance genes between bacteria. And while the process has been slow, new antibiotics are being developed and approved (see here and here) by regulators.

What does TNR have to say about these solutions? Almost nothing. Except for a link to another story complaining about “industrial farming,” Horn’s only suggestion was that the world “eat less meat.” That’s a compelling answer to solipsistic journalists who feel entitled to remake the world we all share, but animals are a globally important source of nutrients and many other important products we take for granted.

The resistance problem is very real. But so are the solutions. It’s time for reporters to find a new crisis.