One of the most pressing aspect of the antibiotic resistance crisis is the role of antibiotics in agriculture and the link with human infections. This is an aspect of the problem that has received mixed treatment in the past. It was clear that agricultural use of antibiotics was a problem but its impact on human infections was debated, not well known, and not conclusive though all doctors probably could recite the statistic that 80% of antibiotics sold in the US were for used in animals. Many people, myself included, focused heavily on the superbugs stalking our hospitals and ICU and thought almost exclusively about infection control and human antibiotic stewardship.
However, with the publication of Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats, I suspect things will change. This book written by, in my opinion, the premier science journalist, Maryn McKenna, is something extraordinary. I read books in this genre continually and I can saw that McKenna’s ability to tell a compelling non-fiction story while weaving together history, politics, science, and medicine in a manner that teaches and leaves the reader completely captivated is unrivalled.
Big Chicken, which published in 2017, is much more than a book on unraveling antibiotic use in chickens, who are fed “routine doses of antibiotics on almost every day of their lives.” It is nothing short than a history of the chicken industry in the US — which breeds “for everything but flavor: for abundance, for consistency, for speed” — and it is only by understanding antibiotic use in that context that one can really grasp the issue. This is the book’s chief value.
The book teems with so much good information that it is impossible to capture in a short blog post. Some highlights include:
How antibiotics facilitated the transformation of grain into muscle making an “active backyard bird into a fast-growing, slow-moving, docile block of protein”. Slaughter weights of chickens have doubled in the past 70 years and can be achieved in half the time due largely to the use of growth promoting antibiotics, which allowed chickens to become more than just egg-layers to most farmers.
The story of the McNugget
The use of antibiotic-laced harpoons to shoot whales!
The questionable role of a Mississippi Democrat congressman
The change in culture that sparked companies like Chick-fil-A and Perdue to revaluate antibiotic use
The book also has great anecdotes of disease outbreak investigations — one featuring a young Mike Osterholm — and scientific studies that increasingly linked antibiotic use in animals to huma infections. The book also discusses how policy evolved with respect to this issue.
For anyone interested in a great story that traces the roots of a major scientific/medical problem, I highly recommend this book. For those who work in infectious disease, it is required reading (as are all of Maryn McKenna’s books).