Could Walmart Lead an Antibiotics Revolution?

It has been a banner week for followers of a key public health and animal welfare issue: the growing antibiotic resistance crisis. The connections between the overuse of antibiotics administered to animals in concentrated feeding operations (CAFOs) and increasingly ineffective antibiotic treatment of human bacterial infections have already been drawn by the CDC, which reiterated its findings in a new report released this week.

To be clear, animal and human use of antibiotics is contributing to the emergence of so-called superbugs, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This week’s CDC study calls for more oversight and attention to be paid to the urgent problem caused by the misuse of antibiotics in agriculture as well as in human medicine. In fact, their research found that one bacterium isolated in infections outside of hospitals is more related to the strain found in animals rather than humans – proving that this complex problem’s relationship with agriculture needs attention.

Serving nearly as a case-in-point for the CDC study, researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health announced this week they’ve found a connection between living “in proximity” to high-density livestock operations and community-acquired antibiotic-resistant MRSA infections. Published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine, the study was first in examining connections between manure-applied crop fields and high-density livestock operations and MRSA infections in the surrounding community.

In particular, the study found "a significant association between community-associated MRSA and application of swine manure to crop fields," and a general association between swine operations and the infections. The study found no association between dairy farms and MRSA infections. As the first research of its kind, we look forward to seeing more follow-up. As it stands, these results bolster the CDC’s claims that better management and administration of antibiotic use in meat production is a worthy next step to improve public health and safety.

Dan Imhoff, author of CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Meat Factories, isn’t waiting around for that. This week, he launched a petition on asking Walmart’s CEO Mike Duke to demand their meat suppliers only use medically necessary antibiotics to treat sick animals, instead of wide-scale application designed to promote growth and prevent sickness amidst crowded, filthy living conditions. The petition asks Walmart to help “safeguard these critical drugs,” positioning the chain as a potentially powerful partner for public health, citing previous CDC research on the subject.

Since Walmart is the country’s largest and most powerful food retailer, Imhoff’s petition counts on the corporation’s economic heft to support better meat production practices - should it agree to change its sourcing standards. It’s another avenue to change arising as overwhelming evidence makes clear that doing nothing about antibiotics may soon have even more deadly consequences for all of us. (As it is, according to the CDC more than 2 million are infected with an antibiotic-resistant infection and 23,000 people die as a result.) Imhoff’s petition could allow consumers to collectively prompt some long-overdue changes in our food system.