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China's addiction to antibiotics has spilled over to livestock

Posting in Healthcare

China has adopted some of the practices used in U.S. factory farms all in a bid to fulfill a growing demand for cheap meat. Feeding animals small daily doses of antibiotics is one of those embraced by Chinese farmers to both thwart disease and promote growth in the animals, which leads to great efficiency and a subsequent boost in profits, reported PRI.

The increased production and use of antibiotics also has led to a growing number antibiotic resistance genes, known as ARGs, which can have a nasty effect on animals and humans.

China doesn't require farmers to report the antibiotics they use. However, one study estimates that 50 percent of China's antibiotics are fed to livestock. Chinese antibiotics production was 210,000 tons in 2006. Of the 180,000 tons consumed domestically, about 97,000 tons, or 54 percent, was used by the animal husbandry and feed industry, the study says.

Researchers published a separate study earlier this year which found 149 unique ARGs on three commercial farms in China, with concentrations of 192 to 28,000 times more than control samples.

The growing drug resistance on farms is not new. And as PRI notes, it's also well known that the genes for drug resistance can hop from one kind of microbe to another, which causes the resistance to spread.

The researchers' troubling and surprising finding was the degree to which different genes for resistance to different drugs tended to cluster and hop around together. This leads to multiple drug-resistance-problem pathogens, or superbugs.

Antibiotics are poorly absorbed by animals, and so much of it ends up in manure. That ARG-laced manure is turned into fertilizer and compost or ends up running off into rivers or streams. Humans are exposed to ARGs through groundwater, dust particles and produce that has been grown in farms that use animal waste.

The problem isn't unique to China. But the scale of the problem is, considering farms in China are feeding some 1.3 billion people.

Photo by Flickr user conbon33

— By on September 11, 2013, 6:31 AM PST

Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure