This week, researchers at the Washington University Medical School (WUSM) announced they had successfully combined three antibiotics that, together, can kill MRSA, otherwise known as antibiotic-resistant staph infection. According to WUSM professor Gautam Dantas, this is a major breakthrough that could save 11,000 American lives every year. However, our society urgently needs to address the underlying causes of bacterial resistance, particularly the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms.
Antibiotics are the backbone of modern medicine: without them, a common scratch becomes potentially deadly. Nearly every major public health organization agrees that overuse of antibiotics in mass meat production threatens the effectiveness of those essential medicines.
The biggest contributors to growing resistance are factory farms that administer routine antibiotics to healthy animals to make them grow faster and to prevent disease from unsanitary conditions. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the United States alone over 2 million people get sick and 23,000 die from antibiotic-resistant superbugs each year.
Washington University dining services and several major restaurants near campus, including Chipotle and Panera, have taken a stand by serving antibiotic-free meat sourced from producers committed to protecting public health. While this is a step in the right direction, factory farms need to know that this is an issue of broader public concern. If bigger, mass-appeal restaurants like Subway, the world’s largest fast-food chain (and incidentally, another restaurant on our campus), go antibiotic-free, factory farms might shift their practices to meet Subway’s demands.
We can only address the symptoms for so long. It is imperative that our society address the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms before it is too late. The researchers at the Washington University Medical School are working to buy us time and could save thousands of lives, but we need to cut the problem off at the source — factory farms — so we do not have to rely on short-term solutions for a long-term problem.
Author is affiliated with Missouri Public Research Group, an advocacy group that investigates contemporary political issues