A silent menace
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A silent menace

With factory farming giving rise to antimicrobial resistant superbugs, calls for sustainable practices and alternative protein sources are growing

A silent menace
A pig is given antibiotics.

In factory farms, animals live in limited spaces and unsanitary and stressful conditions which can lead to illness and disease. To prevent this, antibiotics are routinely mixed into the drinking water or food. However, the overuse of antibiotics can lead to growth of antimicrobial resistant bacteria, commonly known as superbugs, or bacteria and fungi that are resistant to drugs designed to kill them.

Some people may not be aware of the connection between animals living in cramped factory farms and humans who consume their meat. Unfortunately, consuming meat containing antimicrobial resistant bacteria can increase the risk of acquiring antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in humans.

Campaign manager Chokdee Smithkittipol of World Animal Protection (Thailand) explained that antimicrobial resistance is a severe threat that often goes unnoticed.

"Nobody knows whether they or their loved ones have acquired antimicrobial resistance. It does not only affect people living in poverty. Since everyone is a consumer, it can happen to anyone."

Recent investigations conducted by World Animal Protection have revealed the presence of antimicrobial resistant superbugs in areas surrounding pig and chicken farms, which points to the alarming overuse of antibiotics within operations. The findings from October 2023 demonstrate that antimicrobial resistant superbugs persist in public water sources near factory farms in Nakhon Ratchasima, Chachoengsao and Nakhon Pathom. The results were similar to tests conducted four years ago.

Chokdee Smithkittipol of World Animal Protection (Thailand). World Animal Protection (Thailand)

Among the identified superbugs are antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli and Klebsiella, which are commonly associated with antibiotics used in factory farms such as ampicillin, amoxy-clavulanate and tetracycline. These antibiotics are closely linked to those used to treat various bacterial infections in humans, including urinary tract infections, bronchitis, ear infections, septicemia and sexually transmitted diseases. The spread of these superbugs poses a significant risk to humans, potentially leading to fatal infections.

From the reports issued by World Animal Protection, Chokdee believes that antimicrobial resistance is a critical issue.

"The Lancet, a respected medical journal, estimated that around 40,000 Thais die from antimicrobial resistance every year. This means, on average, one person dies every 12 minutes. People with antimicrobial resistance often do not know they have it until they become sick and find that medicines bought from pharmacies do not work," said Chokdee.

"After that, they need to see a doctor and get stronger medicine. This makes treatment more complicated. Another worry is using colistin, which is an antibiotic medication used as a last-resort treatment for resistant bacteria. However, because it is strong, it can cause side effects. In the report from the factory farms, we also found antimicrobial resistance to colistin.

"Due to antimicrobial resistance, Thai patients are forced to stay in hospitals for a longer period of time. According to the website amrthailand.net, the total number of additional days per year that patients throughout Thailand spend in hospitals is 3.24 million. This translates to an economic loss of over 40 billion baht."

In 2018, World Animal Protection investigated food in supermarkets and discovered that packaged pork was contaminated with antimicrobial resistant bacteria.

"We expected packaged pork to be of higher quality than the unpackaged kind. The packages even have barcodes that provide information of their farm of origin. While high temperatures can kill antimicrobial resistant bacteria, people may be exposed to bacteria before it is cooked," Chokdee explained.

Pigs in a factory farm. (Photo: World Animal Protection/Noelly Castro)

Some people believe that instead of consuming chicken and pork, they should opt for seafood, vegetables or fruits to avoid antimicrobial resistant bacteria. Unfortunately, farmers and seafood manufacturers also use antibiotics.

"We have learned from networks that farmers use antibiotics in rice and orange farms. In northern Thailand, especially Chiang Mai, some farmers mix antibiotics with water and apply it directly to orange trees through tubes. This overuse of antibiotics can lead to contamination of the environment including soil and groundwater," Chokdee said.

"Our networks discovered that since people consume large amounts of aquatic animals, there are many shrimp farms, freshwater fish farms, salmon farms. To prevent illness among aquatic animals, some farmers pour antibiotics into the water the animals live in."

To mitigate the overuse of antibiotics, Chokdee, who is a flexitarian, suggests people reduce their meat consumption.

"We respect everyone's food choices since each person has different needs, tastes and beliefs regarding food. However, factory farming is harmful to humans, animals and the environment. To transition from factory farms to sustainable farms, there must be a shift in the demand for meat consumption, which applies globally, not only to Thailand," he said.

World Animal Protection (Thailand) surveys animal farms. (Photo: World Animal Protection Thailand)

"We hope that more people will choose alternative protein sources such as beans, vegetables, insects and even lab-grown meats, which is undergoing research and production testing for safe consumption. As long as the demand for cheap meat remains high, a transition from factory farms to more friendly farms will never happen."

World Animal Protection believes that sustainable farms are an alternative which can provide a better quality of living for animals, which leads to a reduction in the use of antibiotics.

"In contrast to factory farms, animals on sustainable farms can wander in outdoor areas and socialise with other animals. Due to better conditions, they have better health than animals in factory farms," said Chokdee.

"We do not reject the use of antibiotics. We believe that antibiotics are necessary for treating sick animals. In alternative farms, farmers can identify which animals are sick and specifically administer antibiotics to those that need them. As a result, antibiotic usage is minimised. Although the investment for sustainable farms is higher than factory farms, the selling price is not much different."

Public water sources near factory farms are inspected. (Photo: World Animal Protection Thailand)

Last month, World Animal Protection launched the "Rowing For Farm Animals" campaign. The campaign aims to foster public engagement and raise awareness about antimicrobial resistant superbugs contamination in public waterways in three major rivers -- Bang Pakong in Chachoengsao; Nakhon Chai Si River in Nakhon Pathom; and the Chao Phraya in Bangkok.

World Animal Protection later met with Dr Rakthai Ngampak, the director of the Bureau of Livestock Development Standard and Certification, to deliver a list of 15,000 names who signed up to support and prevent the spread of antimicrobial resistance, as well as animal welfare improvement.

Chokdee said that Dr Rakthai was positive and expressed opinions that aligned with their proposals. However, World Animal Protection still has to move forward to achieve its goals.

"Our goal is a challenging one to accomplish, but it is possible. To succeed, we have to work with networks and the public. In addition to animal welfare, we are trying to create safe food systems in Thailand. Those who have power to bring about change regarding superbugs are the people. Therefore, we will continue to engage with the public and act as an intermediary to convey their proposals and concerns to policymakers," concluded Chokdee.

The 'Rowing For Farm Animals' event in Nakhon Chai Si River last week. (Photo: World Animal Protection Thailand)

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