Factory Farming relies on antibiotics - and risks catastrophic antibiotic resistance.
Increased production and intensification of animal agriculture means that disease outbreaks will always happen.
What a former UK pig vet can teach about the practicality of managing antibiotics ‘responsibly’ in a Factory Farm.
Tailbiting in pigs
Tail biting or vice rips through a factory farmed population because the pigs cannot get away in the limited space provided, and if this population is large it can be extremely difficult to get on top of without mass antibiotics and ( depending on financial limitations) pain relief. Often the ‘biter’ is a pig which has been compromised or diseased in some way, and indicates possible frustration, chronic pain or stress Once there is blood in a pen, the pigs tend to develop a taste for it and the whole pen can end up with tail bites very quickly
The management of an outbreak of tail biting includes
- Injectable antibiotics, if only a small number are affected and it is not spreading If a bite is severe, the course of antibiotics will usually need to be at least 1 2 weeks In water mass antibiotics if the group is large and the outbreak cannot be contained, or if multiple pigs have severe wounds
- Topical antibiotic or aluminium spray onto the wound
- Bitter sprays onto the wounds in an attempt to deter other pigs from continuing biting or Perfume spray used to reduce ‘ranking fights’
- Various feed additives or increased salt
- Non steroidal anti inflammatories usually through the water for whole groups
- Provision of ‘toys’ or enrichment
- Killing any pigs that have gone beyond help (which happens incredibly quickly, in part due to hygiene and stocking density, in part due to the tail being a direct route into the spinal cord)
This is a disease that requires up to 7 weeks of blanket administration of antibiotics to treat and prevent spread to the next batch, and rigorous cleaning and disinfection with an observed ‘down period’ that the unit must remain empty for before re populating. There is no vaccine available (despite first being identified in the 1960 s), and pigs cannot be left untreated, so huge volumes of antibiotics are required to bring it under control in the first instance
From a 2020 study
“As infected farms mostly remain infected for long periods of time, antimicrobial usage significantly increases on these farms. Apart from the costs, the high usage increases the selection for acquired antimicrobial resistance, not only in Brachyspira but also in commensals and ( pathogenic bacteria of the pig”
🔗 Source: Implementation and evaluation of different eradication strategies for Brachyspira hyodysenteriae
“Salmonella Infantis is a major public health concern and has become established in the broiler sector in some European countries, as well as globally, and is frequently multidrug resistant ( Three broiler farms in England and Wales, which had incursions of MDR S Infantis between 2013 and 2017 were investigated longitudinally”
🔗 Source: Field investigations of multidrug-resistant Salmonella Infantis epidemic strain incursions into broiler flocks in England and Wales
“New research shows that there may be more antimicrobial resistant salmonella in our food animals than scientists previously thought Researchers found that traditional culturing methods used to test livestock for problematic bacteria often miss drug resistant strains of salmonella The study, published in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, showed that 60 percent of cattle fecal samples contained multiple strains of salmonella that traditional testing methods missed More alarmingly, the researchers found that about one out of every 10 samples tested positive for a drug resistant strain of salmonella called Salmonella Reading which can cause severe illness in people”
🔗 Source: Harmful Bacteria Hiding in Livestock; Traditional Methods Aren’t Finding Them
From Defra’s 5 Year Action Plan (p 49 )):“Food and feed can be contaminated with resistant bacteria on the farm and from various sources such as slaughter and processing Once in food, AMR [Antimicrobial Resistance] can spread far and wide through trade, causing infections throughout the food chain Food borne diarrhoeal diseases in themselves already pose a major health threat, the WHO estimate these kill around 230 000 people per year globally Those caused by drug resistant bacteria, such as salmonella, pose a particular risk to human health because of possible treatment failure E coli and enterococcus species (bacteria both commonly found in animal faeces) can carry resistance genes that can be transferred to human pathogens, fuelling the spread of resistance further”
🔗 Source:Tackling antimicrobial resistance 2019-2024
Experts agree that voluntary regulation is insufficient to control the problem
“Instead of regulating, a key part of the government’s strategy remains to rely on farmers to voluntarily do the right thing. Total farm antibiotic sales had previously fallen by about 50% between 2014 and 2018, partly through voluntary initiatives in the pig and poultry industries, making the UK a below average user in the EU. However, increased imports in years to come of cheaper, non EU, meat and dairy produced with routine antibiotic use could lead to British farmers being outcompeted unless they lower their own standards and return to higher antibiotic use. Antibiotic use remains highest in pigs, over 2.5 times higher per animal than in Denmark and the Netherlands. According to the pig industry, the failure to reduce antibiotic use in pigs in 2019 was due to an increase in swine dysentery, a severe bacterial infection which spreads when pigs ingest infected faecal matter. In 2019, there were some large increases in antibiotic use in poultry. Antibiotic use increased by 40% in chickens raised for meat and by 50% in the egg industry, although use in both cases use remains far lower than in pigs. Antibiotics continue to be overused to control diseases caused by the stress and poor hygiene of intensive farming . Major improvements to husbandry are needed to protect animal health and welfare. The government must also commit to banning all preventative mass medication.”
🔗 Source: UK farm antibiotic use increased by 5% in 2019 - Alliance to save our antibiotics
Summary of concerns
- Any economic farming requires antibiotics
- Factory Farm requires higher usage and we’ve shown that antibiotic usage is required to offset factory farmings compromised care for animals.
- Antibiotics used against disease outbreaks is the consequence of the conditions on factory farms
- Schemes to reduce farm use have been voluntary - because antibiotics are a legal product like any other - and so like smoking or drinking deserve their place in the market.
- Despite UK Government drive to reduce farm use, the decrease has now plateaued (graph)
- As shown in the Bureau of Investigative Journalism research, use of some compounds has doubled despite the pressure to drive use down