How Cheap Meat Practices Beef Up Superbugs Like MRSA

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Johnson says that despite the increase in the number of superbugs, infection tends to be a "somewhat uncommon occurrence." When it does occur, however, the infection is "more difficult to treat, more costly and more likely to lead to death in severe cases."

What Needs to Be Done About Superbugs

As the superbug threat grows, lawmakers and experts alike say the solution to the problem is clear -- but not necessarily easy to get going.

"Since 1977, the Food and Drug Administration has known that regularly feeding antibiotics to healthy animals is reducing the effectiveness of these drugs," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., in a statement to ABC News. "And a recent study conclusively linked the routine use of antibiotics in food animals with the rise of MRSA, which now kills more people than AIDS.

"If that's not a public health crisis, I don't know what is."

One approach, doctors say, is to reduce antibiotic use in both humans and animals -- essentially using them only to treat disease, rather than for disease prevention. Slaughter, who is also the only microbiologist in Congress, has in recent years introduced legislation that would regulate antibiotic use in animal feed. So far, this bill has not passed into law.

"There is now general recognition that antibiotics merely for livestock growth improvement has significant implications for public health safety," says Dr. Paul Auwaerter, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Proponents of feeding antibiotics to healthy livestock argue, however, that the process is necessary to ensure animal health and to maintain efficiency. Eliminating antibiotics from feed would decrease the number of animals meat producers can raise, and so increase meat prices.

Data from the National Research Council estimates that a ban on antibiotic use in animal feed would cost a family of four an additional 34 to 75 cents per week for meat. Critics, on the other hand, cite the total cost to U.S. households from superbug infections. According to a news release from the advocacy group Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, these costs amount to $35 billion when factoring in lost wages, hospital stays and premature deaths nationwide.

Livestock farmers Maria and Ron Rosmann of Harlan, Iowa, also attended the Supermoms roundtable. They agree that it is time for a change in the industry.

"I feel very guilty about deaths resulting from this," Ron Rosmann says. "It shouldn't be. It doesn't have to be. If producers would change their production so that animals had more space and room to go outside, that would make a big difference."

"We have cheap meat in the U.S.," Maria Rosmann says. "The fear that is put into the consumer of how it will affect their pocketbooks is very real, but there is no fear put into the consumer's mind about what you are feeding your family."

Macario says there is a solution to the problem of increased antibiotic resistance. "I want to make sure that people don't shut down or feel like the world is going to end. Not all issues are solvable, but this one is."

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