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In 2015, Sandy Lewis, a small-time organic cattle farmer in upstate New York bought 13 bulls, for around $5,000 each (Dh18,390), from a breeder in Oklahoma. A few weeks after the animals were trucked to his farm near the Vermont border, Lewis discovered that two of the bulls had died. He could see holes in their abdomens from where they had gored one other.

A field autopsy proved inconclusive. But when two more bulls among the new herd fell sick, Lewis shipped them off to Cornell University to be examined. One died along the way, but a blood test on the living bull provided the answer: It had anaplasmosis, a bacterial illness that destroys red blood cells and deprives the animals of oxygen, causing them at times to act violently. The disease is relatively rare in the Northeast, yet a quarter of Lewis’ herd ended up becoming infected. He lost another six animals to the disease and spent more than $100,000 trying to save the rest. (Ultimately, another 100 animals had to be “culled”.)

The costly experience propelled Lewis, an intense, cranky and compulsive former Wall Street arbitrageur, on a two-year investigative journey into the use of antibiotics on American animal farms. Now he is asking a question he strongly believes government regulators and the meat industry urgently need to grapple with: Are cattle and poultry farmers misusing antibiotics, allowing too much of the drug to get into our food?

It has long been common knowledge in farming that antibiotics can help cause animals to grow fatter faster. Time is money, particularly in the food industry, and for many years ranchers used antibiotics not just for treating diseases but also for promoting growth to ready animals for the slaughterhouse sooner. In early 2017, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in United States enacted rules banning the use of human antibiotics purely for growth promotion in animals and requiring ranchers to get a prescription from a veterinarian for antibiotics that once could be purchased over the counter. The FDA enacted the restrictions out of growing concern about the breeding of drug-resistant bacteria from antibiotic overuse. Those resistant bacterial strains can be transferred to humans by contact with animals or raw meat and possibly through the consumption of undercooked meat.

The growing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics causes some 23,000 deaths a year in the US alone and $34 billion in financial losses annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also estimates that more than 400,000 United States residents become ill with infections caused by antibiotic-resistant food-borne bacteria every year, with about 1 in 5 resistant infections caused by germs from food and animals.

Veterinarians working for certain feedlots — industrial-style farms where chickens and cattle are fattened — seem more than happy to continue writing prescriptions for antibiotics that end up in livestock feed. Of all the medically effective antibiotics sold for both animal and human use, about 70 per cent goes into the feed and water of farm animals, indicating that overuse on the farm is still rampant.

Beyond the threat of drug-resistant illness, there is evidence of another risk from antibiotic overuse in poultry and cattle: the possibility that people who consume antibiotic-laced meat will get some of the drugs, as well as resistant bacteria, into their own digestive tracts — with potentially harmful results.

A growing body of scientific research also shows that antibiotics can disrupt our so-called gut microbiome, the bacteria that live happily in our stomach and intestines and that are the key to our ability to properly digest food and process fats. This disruption has been linked to the rise of noncommunicable diseases such as obesity, juvenile diabetes, asthma and allergies. Some researchers also believe that alterations in the gut microbiome have led to an increase in the incidence of autism, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

There is a way to combat antibiotic drugs from possibly harming the human gut microbiome: Injecting them rather than ingesting them in pill form. Some researchers believe that injections get the drug into the body with little or no damage to the gut microbiome, while ingested antibiotic pills go straight into the digestive tract. Shots can also deliver lower doses of antibiotics and work faster than pills.

The effectiveness of the approach is widely disputed. Getting big animals like cows to cooperate long enough for a shot is expensive, time consuming and plain hard work. It’s also much easier for a doctor to prescribe a course of antibiotic pills to people battling infection than to arrange for a series of shots.

Dr Hua Helen Wang, a professor in the microbiology department at Ohio State University who has done pioneering research into the benefits of taking antibiotics by injection, told me that while more studies need to be done, there is no question that taking antibiotics in pill form should be limited to treating infections in the gastrointestinal tract. In a 2013 paper published by the American Society for Microbiology, Wang and her team determined that injected antibiotics reduced the spread of antibiotic-resistant genes in the guts of mice better than orally administered drugs. The injections also protected the integrity of the gut microbiota, they found. “This is a landmark breakthrough,” Wang said.

But Dr Martin J. Blaser, a professor of microbiology at New York University, the author of “Missing Microbes” and the nation’s leading authority about the risks of antibiotic use on the microbiome, says that even if antibiotics are administered by injection, some of the drug still finds its way into the digestive tract.

Blaser’s bigger worry is doctors’ reluctance to change ingrained behaviour regarding the prescription of antibiotics to both humans and animals. “People worry that if we use less antibiotics there will be more bad infections, uncontrolled infections,” he said. He points to Sweden, where on a per capita basis people use about 40 per cent of the antibiotics we use in this country. “There are no epidemics of infections in Sweden,” he said.

Denmark uses about 30 per cent less antibiotics a year on a per-kilogram of meat basis than American farms do. Big chicken producers like Perdue, Tyson and Foster Farms have reduced or eliminated antibiotic use in the feed, perhaps under pressure from their biggest customers, including KFC, McDonald’s and Subway, which now claim in their advertising that all or some of the chicken they serve has been raised without antibiotics. Beef producers should follow suit.

There is wide agreement that antibiotic overuse in both livestock and in people is destroying our ability to fight certain diseases and infections.

— New York Times News Service

William D. Cohan is an American writer and columnist.