Antibiotics and Wicked Problems

The Antibiotics ProblemAlexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin in a mold in 1928, warned in the 1940s that overuse and misuse of antibiotics would make bacteria become resistant to them. Ever since, prolific use of antibiotics has cycled through periods of conflict followed by lulls. It’s a great illustration of a “wicked problem.”

Antibiotics occur in nature. Fleming discovered penicillin; he didn’t synthesize it. Soil teems with fungi producing antibiotics, but in concentrations too small to be effective warfare agents helping an organism dominate its environment. The role of antibiotics in these organisms is still not clearly understood.

Only in concentrated form do antibiotics become bactericides. But having discovered how to concentrate many varieties of antibiotics, and produce them in volume, millions of pounds are used in the United States each year. After use, the effects of small concentrations of antibiotics dispersed in food, water, and elsewhere is not well understood either, except that dispersion of a specific antibiotic stimulates bacteria to become resistant to it, thus diminishing its effectiveness as a therapeutic drug. The effect that draws the most criticism is the emergence of antibiotic-resistant MRSA.

Disputants don’t even agree on how much of what antibiotic is used. Critics claim that up to 70% of all antibiotics are mixed into animal feed to prevent disease when raised in close confinement. Google searches churn up spin and counter-spin by pros and antis.

In sub-therapeutic dosages, antibiotics in animal feed decrease losses from disease and accelerate growth of all animals mass-grown in confinement. The history of chicken illustrates the issues. A century ago, “chicken on Sunday” was a treat. “A chicken in every pot” symbolized ideal middle class prosperity. Chickens were then a side business on family farms concentrating on grains and big animals.

Then growers began growing chickens in larger and larger lot sizes to provide cheaper and cheaper chicken to mass markets. Continuous improvement bred chickens to be mass-grown, and developed equipment to mass-process them. Heavy, fast-growing breeds evolved into “meat hangers.” Shed sizes grew. One keeper can raise chickens in lot sizes of 80,000 and more, and millions of them a year. Keeping the lights on at night keep them eating, growing faster. Among other tricks, chicken spectacles prompt the critters to eat non-stop. In the 1920s, a fryer took 25 weeks and maybe 6 pounds of grain per pound of chicken. Now it’s as low as 6.5 weeks, and 1.2 pounds of grain per pound of chicken. Chicken became a commodity raised in factory houses by industry-like process standards. Margins are thin, so miss these standards a tad, and growers lose money on a flock. A 1% drop in flock yield can spell a loss, so they do anything to grow every chick to market, including antibiotics in feed, and fear any little deviation from past success. Animal advocates protest the cruelties of confinement. Health advocates protest anything that diminishes the therapeutic power of antibiotics in humans.

Europeans have taken this more seriously than Americans. After several countries banned antibiotics in animal feed, the entire European Union banned it in 2006. In the United States the American Medical Society and the American Veterinary Medical Association have been at loggerheads for years, at the scientific epicenter of political gridlock between the producers and the protesters.

The Food Marketing Institute has a good summary of the current status of this wicked problem in the United States. The change in hog production in Denmark suggests that eliminating antibiotics in hog feed increased costs by about $5 per hog, or about 1%. The various parties are trying work out a way for animal growers in the U.S. to phase out of this, but the debating points rage on. More dialog and fewer shrill debate exchange (mostly in the media) might help arrive at a solution quicker.

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