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We quit eating chicken after hearing this unsettling interview

We take for granted living in a post-antibiotic world. Go ahead: climb that ladder to hang Christmas lights, get a stent to open a blood vessel, let your kids slide into home plate. We don’t have to fear scratches and minor injuries.

But investigative journalist Maryn McKenna says we’re living on the brink of a post-antibiotic world because its overuse is allowing bacteria to adapt and become resistant.

This problem arises not so much from treating that ear infection, but rather in the meat we’re consuming.

“On a global average, at least twice as many antibiotics going into animals as are used in people. And – this is important – almost none of those animals are sick,” McKenna said, speaking at a Town Hall Seattle event on January 23.

Roughly 700,000 people die every year from antibiotic-resistant disease. McKenna said we could reach 10 million deaths per year by 2050.

In the wake of World War II, a researcher discovered that giving small, routine doses of antibiotics to farm animals sped their growth and allowed the animals to be held in packed factory farms.

But these preventative dosages, small enough not to kill the bacteria, instead allowed diseases to evolve. Hospitals started seeing penicillin-resistant staph or food-borne illnesses that had never existed before in the world.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Pharmaceutical companies have stopped making new antibiotics because they aren't as profitable.", "style": "wide"}]]“Whenever we use an antibiotic, we are taking a risk that disease bacteria will adapt to the drug and become resistant,” McKenna said. “When we give an antibiotic to a sick human or animal, we are balancing that risk against the benefit of curing an infection. But when we give antibiotics to animals that are not sick, there is no benefit. The equation flips entirely over to risk.”

This bacteria isn’t just in the meat we eat, but in the soil, the ground water, the dust on the wind, carried by rodents and insects and people outside the gates of the farm. And they spread around the world, both land and sea.

McKenna said society didn’t take the problem seriously because the demand for inexpensive protein was so high – and even as different antibiotics were rendered ineffective by resistant bacteria, there was always another drug that could be used to counter the effect of the one lost.

But that’s no longer the case, she said. Pharmaceutical companies have stopped making new antibiotics because they aren’t as profitable. It can take 10 years and $1 billion to produce a new drug, antibiotics don’t have high prices and aren’t used long, and – ironically enough – bacteria resistance can cut into the profits before the research money is recouped.

McKenna believes there’s little time left to get it right, but she offers a few hopeful signs: Big name producers and even fast food companies are going antibiotic-free.

On the way out, the Obama Administration removed growth promoters from our farms. But few countries, including the U.S., have gone beyond this step to regulate all types of antibiotics given to animals that aren’t sick.

“This is a problem that won’t go away,” McKenna said. “We can no longer pretend that one country or one ecosystem is separate from another. Foods are flown across the world. Pathogens cross borders on birds, on the wind, in the oceans, and in our bodies.”

McKenna is an investigative journalist with expertise in public health and food policy. Her latest book is “Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats.” Her other books include “Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA” and “Beating Back the Devil.”

She spoke at Pioneer Square’s Impact Hub on January 23. Town Hall Seattle presented this Inside/Out event as part of their Science series.

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.

Please note: This recording contains unedited language of an adult nature.

Listen to the full version below:

Year started with KUOW: 2006