Hey, are you freaking out over Ebola? Don’t. If you want to know why not, Maryn McKenna of Wired did a fantastic curation of all the best stories about why you should not lock your doors and stockpile garlic necklaces and silver bullets to defend against Ebola.
But Ebola can provide us a teachable moment. You know why Ebola is so scary? Because antibiotics can’t fix it. We’ve become spoiled, us 20th century types, spoiled rotten by living in a world where antibiotics fix all our diseases, such as tuberculosis, syphilis, meningitis, and infections. But what if our antibiotics stop working? Then everything starts to look like Ebola. This is not a mere hypothetical. Last year 23,000 Americans died from antibiotic resistant diseases. This is a true fact! Read the CDC report if you think I’m making this up.
Now here’s why this is a food story: One place antibiotic resistant diseases come from is farm animal poop! But not any farm animal poop. It comes from the farm animal poop of farm animals fed eternal, never-ending, everyday subtherapeutic doses of the very same antibiotics we use to treat human diseases. The CDC has documented that this happens. The way it happens is: Lots of bacteria fall into a pile of waste. The waste is full of antibiotics. Most of the bacteria die. Some don’t. The ones that don’t are now antibiotic resistant! They multiply, and get on farm workers skin and clothes. In the Netherlands now when a farm worker shows up in the hospital they throw them into a biohazard containment isolation unit until lab tests prove they are free of antibiotic-resistant super bacteria. Can antibiotic-resistant super bacteria arise in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and other places with highly concentrated food-animal operations? Hell yeah! We do not need to raise animals like this. McKenna, who I follow obsessively, did a fantastic story in Modern Farmer about how the Dutch, sensibly terrified of what was happening, changed their farming practices to get rid of antibiotics.
We are on our own with this. The FDA is failing us, as Ruth Reichl eloquently put it recently in the New York Times. And so we are facing the next pandemic—as the head of the CDC put it. This is not a drill. Two million Americans got antibiotic resistant diseases last year. There are only 318 million Americans. Your odds of avoiding this are not good.
But you can stop this madness right now! How? By doing these three things. First, educate yourself and acknowledge that this is happening. Second, support the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act currently languishing in the House and the Preservation of Antibiotic Resistance Act currently going nowhere in the Senate, which will end the large-scale use of antibiotics in livestock production. And, third, buy food raised without that endless low dose of antibiotics. This food will come from small farmers, much of it will come from animals raised in normal concentrations out of doors—not piled on each other like files in an overstuffed filing cabinet. This is a huge thing. If enough buyers avoid antibiotic-soaked animals, the big meat producers will make a decision to not fight regulation. If Chick-Fil-A and Chipotle can stop producing animals with antibiotics, McDonald’s and your local school can and will, if you act with your wallet.
Three easy steps. And if you want to earn extra credit for a fourth step and make an antibiotic-loving food writer happy, every time you hear Ebola in the current news cycle, turn to your neighbor and say, 'Actually, you know what’s really scary?' Then tell them.