When bad bugs jump from farm to bedside

Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division

When bad bugs jump from farm to bedside

‘Big Chicken’ author, infectious disease researchers take aim at antibiotic resistance driven by agriculture, medicine

Farm to Bedside

Infectious disease experts from around the state gathered at Fred Hutch Thursday for a 'Farm to Bedside' symposium on how the overuse of antibiotics in animals can lead to antibiotic-resistant bugs in humans. Panelists from left to right: Drs. Scott Weissman, Douglas Call, Peter Rabinowitz, Marisa D'Angeli and moderators Steve Pergam and Paul Pottinger.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

On Christmas day in 1948, a scientist walked into his laboratory outside of New York City to check the results of an experiment. What he found changed the way we raise farm animals  and, according to journalist and author Maryn McKenna, set the world on course for crisis.

That crisis is antibiotic resistance, and it began — or at least accelerated — with the discovery 70 years ago that McKenna, the author of “Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats,” described Thursday to a packed auditorium at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. 

That scientist discovered that giving tiny doses of antibiotics to chickens sped their growth and protected them from crowding and other unhealthy conditions. Considered both a miracle and a moneymaker, the practice quickly became widespread in pork, beef and other meat production as well. But McKenna said the unintended consequence was that the pervasive use of these drugs put pressure on bacteria to do what they do very well even without encouragement — develop resistance through mutation.

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