For some time studies have shown that organic chicken farms have less antibiotic-resistant salmonella than non-organic chicken farms.
This may come as a relief, given that more than a third of chickens on conventional farms have been found to contain strains of salmonella we can’t protect ourselves against.
But salmonella isn’t the only bacteria that causes us trouble. Enterococci bacteria also present threats to humans, as they’re often responsible for urinary tract infections and surgical wound infections. If a resistant strain of enterococci causes an infection, we can’t treat it with antibiotics.
And a new study shows that two thirds of the enterococci found in the food, litter and water on non-organic chicken farms have antibiotic resistance. This results from the heavy use of antibiotics on non-organic farms to prevent infection and fatten chickens more quickly. We don’t use antibiotics as a preventative measure in humans (only once a person is already ill), because we worry that overuse will create bacteria resistant to the cure. Yet non-organic farms use them that way on chickens.
But the good news is, there’s a solution. Even farms that have just recently gone organic see antibiotic resistance (to an antibiotic used against whooping cough, pneumonia and bronchitis) in only 18% of enterococci, compared to 67% on nonorganic farms. On organic farms, only 17% were resistant to multiple antibiotics, whereas 84% were on nonorganic farms. These are big differences given that the organic farms tested had only just converted to organic.
As more chicken farms continue to convert to organic production, we may well see overall antibiotic resistance begin to decrease. But we’re still at a point where 80% of the antibiotics used in America are administered to animals, the vast bulk of whom aren’t even sick.
Should our priorities instead lie in preserving the power of antibiotics to heal ourselves?