A Solution to Superbugs: On the Horizon?

The USDA is making progress on alternatives to overdosing farm animals with antibiotics.

meat and antibiotics
Could antibiotic overdosing be on its way out? New study gives hope of a solution. (Visual Mozart/Getty Images)
Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Antibiotics are a paradoxical substance on factory farms: while they prevent animals from getting sick in the short term, overapplication of them ups the risk of breeding superbugs resistant to treatment in the long term. Amid growing public awareness—and dissatisfaction—about the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) seems to be making progress on a new fix that could scale back current antibiotic use, reports VegNews.

According to research published in the recent issue of the Journal of Animal Science, USDA scientists at College Station, Texas, have discovered that they can reduce the intestinal concentrations of harmful bacteria by adding sodium chlorate to the drinking water or feed of livestock.

The potential solution is timely. A 2011 report generated from Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data stated that sales of antibiotics for domestic food animals grew by 6.7 percent from 2009 to 2010. With 30.6 million pounds of antibiotics in use on factory farms, farm animal doses account for approximately 74 percent of antibiotic use in the U.S.

The USDA development is part of a general federal effort to start reigning in rampant antibiotic use. In March, U.S District Court judge Theodore Katz ordered the FDA to prove that feeding antibiotics to livestock has no negative effect on human health, or stop the practice altogether.

One month later, the FDA made a landmark decision announcing new regulations to require farmers to obtain prescriptions from veterinarians for animal antibiotics. The required consent from veterinarians is meant to prevent abuse of antibiotics, such as feeding them to farm animals to fatten them up and accelerate their growth—a practice that has been common on factory farms.

According to a Food Safety News article on the recent sodium chlorate development, the organic compounds could be used to detect pathogen growth in pork and beef. They could also be used on broiler chickens, as previous research has shown chlorate-based compounds to be effective in reducing salmonella in poultry. 

The idea isn't new; sodium chlorate has been in use in agricultural production for more than a century, and it's proven effective.

"To date, the body of literature suggests that chlorate salts are active against human pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7; that chlorate salts are very well tolerated by most species of animals; and that chlorate is metabolized in food and laboratory animals to a single, non-toxic metabolite," the report in Jounral of Animal Science reads. "Collectively, these results suggest that chlorate salts could be developed into a useful and safe feed or water additive for use in livestock."

For now, there's more work to be done. A 2000 report with similar findings warned that the application of any new chemical to food animal production "carries with it a responsibility to understand adverse reactions that intended and non-intended exposures may have."

Though a solution to superbugs is desperately needed, perhaps the caution is a hopeful sign in an industry that has, for the last 50 years, opted for short-term gains at the risk of long-term devastation.

What do you think? Are the USDA and FDA doing enough to solve the superbug dilemma?

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