Monday, June 13, 2005

Piece de la resistance

Modern industrial poultry raising (factory farms) is possibly a problem in promoting avian influenza (see posts here, here, here and here). It is definitely a problem when it comes to causing antibiotic resistance in human pathogens. A very interesting paper by Price et al. in the May 2005 Environmental Health Perspectives shows that even a change in company policy may not be enough (.pdf here). The consumer is better off changing the company. (Full disclosure: the Reveres know one of the authors.)

For years large poultry producers added fluoroquinoline antibiotics (FQs) to chicken feed or drinking water to control E. coli infections in broilers. This class of antibiotic, whose most well known member is the drug Cipro used prophylactially in the anthrax attacks, is also used to treat other human infections, including infection with the intestinal pathogen camplylobacter. Camplylobacter causes a rather nasty diarrheal disease. Here is CDC's picturesque description:
Campylobacteriosis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria of the genus Campylobacter. Most people who become ill with campylobacteriosis get diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever within 2 to 5 days after exposure to the organism. The diarrhea may be bloody and can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. The illness typically lasts 1 week. Some persons who are infected with Campylobacter don't have any symptoms at all. In persons with compromised immune systems, Campylobacter occasionally spreads to the bloodstream and causes a serious life-threatening infection.
Bottom line: you'd rather not have it. In October 2000 FDA tried to withdraw approval of FQs in poultry production because of the threat to public health, but one of the makers, Bayer, challenged the decision in court, and although it was upheld in March 2004, Bayer is appealing, so the drug may still be used legally.

It turns out that most store-bought chicken is contaminated with Campylobacter, although this rarely causes a problem because the organism is easily killed by cooking. Unless you eat very undercooked chicken or there is cross-contamination in the kitchen where uncooked foods like salads come in contact with raw chicken (e.g., on a cutting board used to cut both), there is no problem. Despite this, an estimated 1 million people get campylobacter infections. While nasty, tey are not usually fatal, but it does kill about 100 people a year. For severe cases, antibiotic treatment is indicated.

In the spring of 2003, Price et al. took chicken samples from four brands, two of which were antibiotic-free (Bell and Evans, Eberly) and two conventional (Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms). Tyson and Perdue, bowing to public pressure, had announced in February of 2002 they would stop using FQs as of that date. Unfortunately, according to the Price et al. data, it didn't help. Overall, the carriage rate for camplylobacter in all four brands was 84%, but there was a significant difference between the antibiotic-free brands (Bell and Evans, Eberly) and the conventional ones, despite the fact that the latter had stopped using FQs a year earlier. The odds of having cipro-resistant camplylobacter organisms was 25 times higher for the conventional brands versus the antibiotic-free brands.

Thus it appears that carrying resistant organisms persists long after use of the drug ceases. There is independent evidence to support this, so the explanation that the companies were not truthful is unnecessary, although possible. Thus use of these drugs incurs significant extra cost to the manufacturer (leaving aside the health cost to consumers), because ridding their facilities of resistant organisms requires intensive cleaning of every inch. Since there are many independent farms supplying them, it isn't even feasible. As an extra little item of non-reassurance, the Price et al. paper also shows the current FDA testing method for antibiotic resistant organisms probably severely underestimates the true incidence.

So a big thank you to Tyson, Perdue, Bayer and Abbot Laboratories (another maker of antibiotics for chickens). But especially to Bayer, who just won't give up on their god-given right to endanger the rest of us.

If you eat chicken, may I recommend Bell and Evans, or Eberly?