Cows and pigs will kill us all

It’s morning. Me and the children are eating breakfast in silence around the kitchen table. My sons playing with his food and spills yoghurt on the clean shirt. Its our every-day routine. The radio is on in the background and I hear the journalist talking about the Swedish pig farmers having a hard time. We’re all in for a hard time because of cheap meat.

The average consumer thinks with her/his wallet and want cheap meat, like pork, and cheap meat it's usually imported, says the reporter. I could not help but think of how our hunger for cheap meat can create an immense suffering in the future. But it was not the animals in their own right I was thinking of, however important, but ourselves and it is not now suffering will hit us like the plage, but in the near future. Soon you have to watch out for small wounds, they might kill you.

Do you remember Aristotle and the philosophical difference between primary and secondary causes? The main cause of the outbreak of EHEC/STEC in Germany this summer was not primarily bean sprouts or lack of hygiene. The new bacterial type that caused the outbreak would not have existed if it weren’t for the animal industry. How the aggressive and multi-drug resistant bacteria ended up in bean-sprouts is a different story and not entirely understood, as far as I can tell. The enormous amounts of animals kept under one roof not only produce meat, it's also the perfect setting for an almost industrial production of new types of bacteria and viruses. That’s a fact.

Bacteria is not the problem here. We have ten time more bacterial cells than our (genetically) own cells in our bodies. Some of the more than thousand species of bacteria living in your body also seems to affect your well-being, so you'd better take care of your bacteria. But that does not only include the bacteria that literally lives in us. We also need to start thinking about the bacteria that live in the environment that we humans have created, from animal shelters, drainage ditches to factories in India that make antibiotics, shrimp- and fish-farms. It is the human created environments that are the problem. More specifically, we have created environments filled with antibiotics. Now bacteria strike back, with a vengeance.

When cattle get sick, they are commonly treated with antibiotics. In many countries across Europe, the vet actually sells antibiotics to farmers. During an antibiotic treatment, most bacteria are killed after a few days while the cattle survive. The twentieth-century miracle drug works equally well on cows and pigs as people. The only problem is that sometimes bacteria survive the treatment. They are resistant to the miracle drug. In a herd where antibiotics are used frequently resistant bacteria spread quickly. Its simple evolution – survival of the fittest.

The bacterium that caused the German outbreak of EHEC/STEC is well equipped to handle a life where there are antibiotics. A scan of their genome have shown that they are resistant to antibiotics as penicillin, streptomycin, tetracycline, nalidixic acid, septra, three different cephalosporin and some combination medications. It is obvious many different kinds of antibiotics have been in circulation in the environment where the bacteria have evolved. Bacteria can not only spread resistance to each other, viruses that infect bacteria can pick with the resistance and spread it through the air. The EHEC/STEC strain is a new hybrid that picked up drug resistance and its poison producing genes from various sources. The big problem for us humans is that the antibiotics that bacteria have been exposed to is not used to cure people, instead it has been used in livestock or worse, through the emission found its way into the external environment. The risk now is that it is the bacteria that laugh last.

For almost one hundred years, we have not had to worry about infections. I myself have had a bacterial infection in one foot after an accident. The wound looked horrible, red and the infection made the area close to the wound swollen and warm. Once my doctor found the right antibiotics the wound healed after a day. What had happened to me if the bacteria had been resistant to all antibiotics? Should doctors have had to amputate my leg?

It is difficult to really get just how much we don’t have to worry, thanks to antibiotics. Now our major critical issue - are we or the cattle to get right to the use of antibiotics? Should we keep the possibility to cure terrible infections in the future, or remain insane and use it to be able to buy cheap pork in the nearest store?

It is up to us as consumers to sent the message to the politicians. Science is clear. We need to shape up our use of antibiotics now or face the consequences. That’s a fact.