Eating Local column: The antibiotic crisis on a personal level
I told our next-door neighbors they might consider building a Trump-size wall or call for a quarantine on Colby Farm. Ed and I are generally vigorous despite our advancing years, but not this week.
There’s nothing exotic about my complaints. I’ve been driving a school bus, and apparently the combination of waking up at 4 a.m. and constant exposure to those darling children crawling with germs is an assault my immune system can’t stand up to. I’ve been more or less sick since the Christmas holiday ended.
Ed’s illness is more sinister.
It started when he drove to Boulder to calm a mutinous band of beekeepers threatening to pull out of the state organization of which he is now president. He thought he’d be brokering bee-friendly legislation in back-room meetings, tackling raw honey standards and boning up on the latest science on controversial pesticides, but no.
He arrived on the Front Range at about the same time as a freak ice storm. As he left the meeting, having obtained a good result, his feet came out from under him on thick, dimpled ice, and he landed hard. At first his hip hurt. It wasn’t until two days later in the shower that he noticed a bit of flesh dangling from his elbow.
He handed me a pair of kitchen shears and asked me to trim off the extra skin, which truthfully looked more like pinkish meat. I did it quickly before I got too squeamish. The amputation caused a persistent pain, and then his arm began to swell.
“I look like Popeye,” he said a few days later, turning back and forth and eying himself in the mirror.
“I’m worried about you,” I told him. And I was.
An angry red glow flared under the pale skin of his inner arm. It was time to get to a doctor.
The physician’s assistant confirmed infection and prescribed a common antibiotic. We hoped it would clear right up, but it didn’t. A few days later his arm was still engorged and unhealthy looking.
Last month the story hit the airwaves of a Nevada woman who died from an infection caused by a bug that just wouldn’t budge, no matter what the doctors threw at it. Tests showed it was resistant to 26 different antibiotics. Nothing available in the U.S. could kill the rare superbug. Public health experts say unkillable bacteria are evolving and spreading. Each year 23,000 die in the U.S. by drug-resistant bugs. “Nightmare bacteria” is the newly coined term for a looming 21st-century threat.
How did this happen? Our affair with life-saving antibiotics is but young in the scale of human history. In 1928 penicillin, the first antibiotic, was discovered in England and ignored. By 1940 its value was understood, but finding a means of mass production was elusive. A moldy cantaloupe a researcher found at an Illinois food market solved the penicillin production riddle.
It was revolutionary. Soldiers wounded in war could be treated and saved. People no longer died from cuts, toothaches, syphilis.
Superbugs, like so much else, are connected to the food we eat.
A researcher at Berkeley named Thomas Jukes showed in experiments in 1948 that a thimbleful of antibiotic mixed into poor-quality chicken feed sped the birds’ growth. As a bonus, antibiotics rendered overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions unproblematic. The industry went hog wild with the new wonder drug.
Consumer Reports magazine drilled into the antibiotic crisis and learned 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in meat and poultry production. Big Ag claims there’s no harm done, but research shows a pathway from breeding resistance on the farm to stubborn human pathogens.
Consumer Reports testing of grocery store chicken in 2006 and 2010 revealed most samples were contaminated with salmonella and campylobacter, 60 percent of it antibiotic resistant.
It’s smart to focus efforts on 80 percent of the problem, and a new federal rule from the FDA does so. “Medically important” antibiotics — those used to treat people — are not to be used to rush growth in animals henceforth, and product labeling now reflects the change.
More important, no one can walk out of the feed store with an 80-pound bag of antibiotics under his arm — not without a veterinarian’s prescription to treat an illness.
Who knows how much stockpiling went on in 2016 as farmers prepared for the change? From 2009 to 2015, sales of these antibiotics for food animals rose by 26 percent. Clearly, alarms about the dangers of overuse fell on deaf ears.
Colorado beekeepers are buzzing about what the new rule means for them. Bees get diseases too, and two antibiotics knock down American foulbrood, a nasty condition that fills the brood chamber with stringy smelly slime. Beyond the trouble and expense of getting a vet out to the bee yard and into a bee veil, how many could tell a Varroa mite from a hive tool?
For better or worse, that’s the point of the new rule — to make it harder and pricier for farmers to use antibiotics.
Eating less meat and locally raised meat is healthier on a personal and societal scale. We have good local options. Whole Foods in El Jebel sells locally raised Nieslanik beef, and Crystal River Meats raises grass fed beef in Carbondale.
Buttercup and Jem, the yearling steers Ed raised in the Colby Farm orchard last summer, never saw an antibiotic or a vet. They’re carved up and in the freezer now, waiting to be savored by neighbors and friends.
When Ed’s doctor got a look at his swollen arm, he scheduled a week of IV-antibiotics at the hospital. Ed read up on bugs resistant to his first antibiotic and worried about MRSA. He made daily trips to the hospital, and I kept my fingers crossed.
Fortunately, the swelling quickly ebbed. The wound began to heal, and the doctor watched for signs of infection in the bone.
I’m about to give in and use my Obamacare while I still can to see a doctor about this persistent cold. I wonder if he’ll prescribe antibiotics.
Hear a fascinating BBC program on antibiotics at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04bnkjr. Marilyn Gleason writes Eating Local periodically for the PI’s Good Taste pages. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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