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Many experts point to the heavy use of antibiotics on animals in modern-day industrial agriculture as a culprit in the phenomenon’s rise. Antibiotics are widely used because they are thought to help grow bigger chickens, the theory being that the drugs free up the birds’ energy for building muscles instead of fighting infections.
“I think it’s an abhorrent use of our lifesaving antibiotics,” said co-author Price, a non-Jew who shops for chickens raised without antibiotics at Whole Foods.
In a report released in September, the CDC called antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food-producing animals a problem of “particular concern because these animals serve as carriers. Resistant bacteria can contaminate the foods that come from those animals, and people who consume these foods can develop antibiotic-resistant infections.”
Thoroughly cooking chicken kills bacteria. But Price noted that at least half the cases of food poisoning from E. coli result from cross-contamination: People handled raw chicken and then didn’t wash their hands before making a salad, or they didn’t scrub their cutting board between preparing raw chicken and slicing vegetables for a salad. Most commonly, E. coli causes urinary tract infections — which need to be treated with antibiotics.
Resistance occurs as a result of natural selection when spontaneous mutations in bacteria enable some to withstand antibiotics. These strains spread and become ubiquitous as other strains fall to the antibiotics. Resistance can be transferred from a single bacterium to others of the same kind as well as to other kinds of bacteria.
But this chicken study is doubly puzzling because normally such resistant bacteria would thrive in a place which liberally used antibiotics, but chickens raised without antibiotics were found to carry as much of the antibiotic-resistant E. coli in question as those given antibiotics.
Furthermore, Empire Kosher, whose drumsticks were among those used in the study, started phasing out antibiotics in its chickens in mid-2008. Since June 2010, none of its chickens has been raised with antibiotics, said Greg Rosenbaum, who from 2006 until last October was Empire’s CEO. (Millman and his mother collected chickens for the study from April 2012 to June 2012.)