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NPR Special Report: How Safe is the Food Supply?
Kicking the Habit of Antibiotics on the Farm

Start streaming audio Listen to part one of the report on antibiotic use on American farms
Start streaming audio Listen to part two of the report, about Denmark's response to antibiotic abuse

Aug. 15, 2001 -- America has a drug problem. It's not street drugs or prescription painkillers -- it's antibiotics.

A small but significant number of people are getting sick and finding the usual antibiotics don't work, because the strain of bacteria that's making them sick has become resistant to the drug. And some studies suggest one important factor in creating this resistance is American farming, where the nation's pigs, chickens and cattle consume antibiotics far more often than most humans.

Creating a Super-Bug

Certain antibiotics, once considered miracle cures, may no longer be effective because strains of bacteria have become resistant.

That's because within every strain of bacteria, a small portion of the population have small but crucial genetic resistance to an antibiotic. And if, for example, a sick person takes antibiotics but fails to finish the whole course of the drug, some of that resistant bacteria can survive.

The surviving bacteria stays in the environment, carrying on the genetic resistance, and the process can eventually lead to a strain of the original bacteria that is totally immune to the antibiotic's assault.

View all the stories in this series

On All Things Considered, in the first of two reports on the use of antibiotics on farms, NPR's Daniel Zwerdling visits with Tennessee family that confronted a drug-resistant strain of bacteria.

Mike Culbreath runs a horse farm near Nashville. When he got sick, his doctor prescribed an antibiotic called Cipro® -- but instead of recovering, Culbreath's condition grew worse. His doctor says he was close to death.

It turns out that Culbreath was infected with a common germ called campylobacter, which victims usually contract by eating infected chicken. But this particular strain of campylobacter was anything but the common germ people usually encounter. It had become resistant to Cipro®.

And government researchers say that the emergence of a resistant strain of the bacteria was only a matter of time, because Cipro® is often used to treat farm animals. Then if resistant strains of bacteria appear in farm animals, they can be spread to humans through infected meat.

Danish farm worker cleans chicken coop
Danish experts say U.S. farmers, who often feed antibiotics to livestock to avoid infections, can cut down on antibiotic use by simply disinfecting livestock pens on a regular basis. Above, a worker hoses down a Danish chicken house.
Photo: Rebecca Davis, NPR

In part two of his report on All Things Considered Aug. 16, Zwerdling visits a country where farmers are learning to kick the drug habit: Denmark, a nation smaller than West Virginia.

Danish livestock consume two-thirds less antibiotics than they used to, and in the case of chickens, most meat for sale is antibiotic-free. While U.S. farmers, pharmaceutical companies and the government are locked in a battle over this issue, the decision to reduce antibiotic use in Denmark came about through an unprecedented agreement between farmers, food industry executives and the Danish government.

Zwerdling's coverage is part of a special report "Who Bought the Farm?" from American RadioWorks, the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio and NPR News.

In "Who Bought the Farm?" reports to air next month, Zwerdling and ARW economics correspondent Chris Farrell will explore what America's increasingly streamlined food production means for the family farm and the health of consumers.

Web Resources:

Antibiotic resistance site from the Centers for Disease Control

Food-borne bacteria information from the CDC

The case against using Cipro® in animal feed from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Cipro® information for human use from Bayer, the drug's maker

FEFANA, the European Federation of the Animal Feed Additive Manufacturers, touts the benefits of using antibiotics as "digestive enhancers" in livestock food