“Drugs, Farmers, and Disease,” by Geoffrey Hull
The following is a transcription of the June 1967 issue of Dr. Royal Lee’s Applied Trophology newsletter, originally published by Standard Process Laboratories.
Drugs Farmers, and Disease
by Geoffrey Hull
The need to awaken public opinion to the dangers of public health of the use of antibiotics in agriculture was the theme of a series of articles in the Evening Post (Reading) last June. Among medical scientists these dangers have been known for a long time, and many of them consider that not enough is done to safeguard the public. Geoffrey Hull discusses some of the issues involved.
Farmers have been encouraged for many years to feed antibiotics to farm animals and birds to promote growth, and they are able also to dose their animals with other drugs, unsystematically, without proper recourse to the veterinary surgeon. Many of these drugs are used in treating human illness, and warnings have been heard from time to time of the potential risks in allowing so many to apply indiscriminately these tools of science in whose proper use they are unversed. The safeguards that apply to the combination of medicine and pharmacy may be less strict than we should like, but those applying to the complex of veterinary science, farming, and the drug industry seem hardly to exist.
Risks foreseen as long ago as 19551 are now becoming dangers recognizable by the general public; but even in 1955, the volume of broiler chicken production in the United States (around 1,090 m. birds) could not have been sustained without the use of growth-stimulating antibiotics.2 At that time the consumption of antibiotics in farm feed was around 700,000 lbs. ($46 million worth), and it was said that the production of antibiotics for such purposes in the United States was so large that it determined the economics of production for medical use.
Since then somewhat similar practices have developed in Britain, partly through high sales pressure of the international pharmaceutical industry, so that it is now almost impossible to get compound animal feed without additives, which commonly includes antibiotics. Some of these additives do occur in nature and may be demanded by the animal, but not necessarily in the circumstances and amount in which they are being artificially used. The way in which these additives promote growth is still not fully understood, and scientists who proposed using many of them emphasized that there was no substitute for good farm management, although their proposals might seem at first to suggest this. Surveys by Ruth Harrison and others suggest that the principle has been widely disregarded.
A recent series of articles by a journalist, John Fielding,3 draws public attention to these matters. Like others, he concludes after examining regulations concerning intensive production of farm animals and birds that “there is a frighteningly superficial interest on the part of the Ministries of Agriculture and Health in the implications of an industry that has written its own rules” during the past 15 years. Fielding points to mounting evidence that new dangers should be studied urgently and to extraordinary facts such as the dissimilarity between the safeguards for red meat and poultry, neither of which seem adequate to meet changing methods of production and distribution. The truth in many of Fielding’s arguments have been known for a long time in the pharmaceutical industry and in scientific circles elsewhere, but as Fielding suggests, government seems usually to act after the mare has bolted—and only afterwards tends to consult those who previously said it would not do so. He quotes a case typical of these early prophesies. A Staffordshire farmer had treated his animals with antibiotics over a considerable period to cure a disease of the udder. His treatment was ineffective, but it resulted in building up in the animals a virulent organism, Staphylococcus aureus, which was resistant to the antibiotics. The farmer was eventually infected and died. The Staphylococci had already become immune to the antibiotics used against them by the doctors because of their overuse by the vets.
That resistance to antibiotics can be acquired is well known to everybody. It is not so well known to the public that there are cases of the transference of immunity from one strain of bacteria to another. This has alarming implications—how alarming we don’t yet know. But the fact of its existence should make us more cautious in their use until we do know more precisely how widespread this transference may become and what can be done to control it. Fielding explores the epidemiology of of Salmonellosis, a disease which is occasionally fatal, though strangely not notifiable, and which is becoming more common as “food poisoning,” associated with the increase in intensive farming and new techniques of distribution. There are apparently about 1,000 people poisoned in Britain each week by eating meat or meal products. In one area of Hampshire alone, two outbreaks in the last seven months resulted in three deaths and 80 cases of medical treatment.
Much of the support for Fielding’s arguments come from a paper by Anderson and Lewis,4 who have studied the relationships between animal and human infections of Salmonella typhimurium strains and their acquired and transmissible resistance to antibiotics. The evidence and implications of this paper are in major part those feared by many scientists for a long time. Fielding concludes that the organism causing typhoid fever is only one step away from immunity to the drug used to treat it. Of concern to farmers, Salmonella can be distributed all over the country by cattle transportation. A recent estimate Fielding quotes is that calf deaths attributed to Salmonella and associated organisms amount to over 4 percent, or about 160,000 per year.
Economists may note that 4 percent is of about the same order as the OECD target for European growth of gross national product, and that this kind of loss to British farming is likely to increase—perhaps catastrophically—unless something is done fairly quickly. But the economic loss does not stop there. Food quality and its economic impact on the national health bill enter in. About 28 percent of barley beeves are said to suffer from liver abscess, and more than 31 tons of poultry from four packing stations in the Bury St. Edmunds area alone were condemned in 1965. Inspection is believed to be inadequate, so that the public may well wish to know how much dangerous food is reaching the shops. In days gone by, one dangerous locally grown chicken might infect one family. Today, chicken produced by modern methods could infect a whole town. We may well inquire whether the profit motive has taken priority over public safety.
It cannot be left entirely to a few firms with socially enlightened policies to set the pace: the matter is too urgent and there are other considerations. In the continuing search for means of increasing world food production, governments of the developing countries are looking naturally towards the highly industrialized countries for advice. The danger here is that they may jump with too much enthusiasm on to the last bus of industrialized modernity whose brakes we are beginning to recognize are defective. The result would be not only there: in modern conditions, food, infection, and contamination travel fast and far, and influence many before anybody has realized quite what has happened.
—Mother Earth, Vol. 14, No. 5, January 1967
- First International Conference on Antibiotics in Agriculture 1956. U.S. National Academy of Science. National Research Council. Publication No. 397. Washington, DC.
- Personal visit. USDA Beltsville Minnesota, 1955.
- John Fielding, Evening Post, June 8–14, 1966. Tessa Road, Reading, Berks.
- Nature, May 8, 1965. Anderson and Lewis.
Editor’s note on “The Saccharine Disease”: The article “The Saccharine Disease,” by T.L. Cleave and G.D. Campbell, was originally published in two parts in the June and July 1967 issues of the Applied Trophology newsletter. For your convenience, we are presenting it in its entirety the July 1967 archive issue, available here.