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Modern farming: A chicken in every pot (and a pathogen on every plate?)


Marc Chagall, The Rooster’, 1929 (via Wikiart).

‘Playing chicken’, a balanced and comprehensive article on antibiotic use in chicken production in Canada has appeared in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of The Walrus, a Canadian general interest magazine. It’s written by Sasha Chapman and it’s subheading is:

Antibiotics made modern farming possible. By abusing them, we risk everything.

Below are some of Chapman’s many salient points, edited and condensed here (to suit the exigencies of Twitter postings this morning). But we urge you to read the article in full; it’s very good.


  • Eating is always an intimate act, and, like most acts of intimacy, it requires you to trust your partner.
  • Bacteria move easily from 1 species to another, esp through the food system. We are microbiologically intertwined.
  • What happens on the farm can affect us in the kitchen & at the dinner table.
  • We segregate the medical and veterinary disciplines at our peril.
  • Most emerging infectious human diseases in recent decades—eg Lyme disease, H1N1, Ebola—began in animal populations.
  • Nowhere is the division between human & veterinary medicine more significant than in the way we govern antibiotic use.
  • Rates of salmonella infection remain stable despite better food safety standards, livestock management & surveillance.
  • Because salmonella microbes don’t usually bother chickens, farmers have little incentive to get rid of them.
  • Farmers do, however, have plenty of incentives to inadvertently generate microbes resistant to antibiotics.
  • Scientists know that using antibiotics on farm animals can elevate resistance levels in food-borne pathogens.
  • By mid-1990s, the medical community began noticing that the antibiotics that had served so well for decades were no longer as effective.
  • Dubbed superbugs, multi-resistant bacteria began showing up both in hospitals and on farms.
  • Superbugs on chickens travel easily thru the food chain—from farm to abattoir to supermarket to dinner plate.
  • Antibiotics extended our life expectancy more than any other drug: skin infections & UTIs can be fatal without them.
  • If antibiotics no longer work, our lives end much sooner (on average some 10 years sooner).
  • Doctors warn of a post-antibiotic era, when bacteria will be resistant to all the drugs we can throw at them.
  • Antimicrobial resistance & climate change both are caused by humans & well known, w/ solutions seeming beyond reach.
  • Antibiotics are ‘societal drugs’: administered to one individual (feathered or not) can affect resistance in others.
  • Ignoring antibiotic use in one part of the food chain, or one part of the world, imperils us all.
  • Canadian farmers produce a kg of chicken meat using less than half the feed & in less than half the time than in 1950.
  • Pathogens flourish in a warm, littered and crowded 10,000-square-foot barn housing 10,000 chickens.
  • Bacteria change easily to resistance, but people are resistant to change.
  • There are very few bad guys, but there are lots of economic constraints & incentives for violating food safety.
  • Data collection is key. If we don’t know what’s going on in animal & human health, we can’t prepare for pathogens.
  • If chicken farmers & producers in general stopped using antibiotics today our food system would be thrown into chaos.
  • We could think of antibiotics as a common resource, like water, that must be protected.
  • Farmers were among the earliest stewards of the earth. For them, the idea of ‘One Health’ was obvious.
  • But most of us give little thought that our health, and that of our microbiome, might be connected to that of animals.
  • Bacteria, like us, are just trying to survive. Rather than forget them, we could learn from them.
  • ‘Bacteria can change’, [said John Prescott, bacteriologist at the University of Guelph]. ‘But so can we.’

Read the article by Sasha Chapman in The Walrus: Playing chicken, Jan/Feb 2015.


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