Week of 10/17/2004

Dear EarthTalk: How serious is the threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria in chicken and other poultry?

—Dana Wilke, Chicago, IL

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to pigs, cattle and poultry for the purposes of sanitation and growth promotion. Meanwhile, humans rely on many of these same antibiotics as medicines to control various bacterial infections. Bacteria in poultry and other livestock exposed over and over to these antibiotics develop increased resistance. The result can be that when people become infected by these same bacteria—such as Campylobacter or Salmonella, the two most common causes of food poisoning in the U.S.—the antibiotics they normally rely on can be useless.

The Keep Antibiotics Working (KAW) campaign, an association of health, consumer protection, environmental and animal welfare organizations, says that antibiotic resistance is "reaching crisis proportions, resulting in infections that are difficult, or impossible, to treat." The campaign asserts: "Overuse and misuse of antibiotics greatly accelerates the proliferation of resistant bacteria." KAW’s primary goal is to end the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture.

A recent study published in Consumer Reports found that 49 percent of brand name whole broiler chickens purchased in food stores in 25 U.S. cities were contaminated with Campylobacter and/or Salmonella bacteria. According to KAW, those two strains of bacteria alone cause 3.3 million illnesses and 650 deaths every year. The study also found that 90 percent of the Campylobacter and 34 percent of the Salmonella tested were resistant to at least one antibiotic.

Another recent study, conducted by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and the Sierra Club, found that thousands of people in the Minneapolis area were ingesting bacteria resistant to important antibiotic medicines like Cipro, Synercid and Tetracycline. "As bacteria on food get more and more resistant to the antibiotics doctors rely on for treating infections, it puts patients" lives at risk. This study confirms that supermarket chicken
can be an important source of drug-resistant infections," says IATP"s David Wallinga M.D. "We can’t afford to play Russian Roulette with our existing antibiotics because they are rapidly losing effectiveness," he concludes.

CONTACTS: Union of Concerned Scientists, (617) 547-5552, http://www.ucsusa.org; Keep Antibiotics Working, (202) 572-3250, http://www.keepantibioticsworking.com; Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, (612) 870-0453, http://www.iatp.org; Sierra Club, (415) 977-5500, http://www.sierraclub.org.

Dear EarthTalk: What is the "Roadless Rule" and why are environmentalists in favor of it?

—Eliza Scheer, Seattle, WA

The U.S. Forest Service manages America"s national forests for "multiple uses," not just recreation and preservation. And over the past 50 years, one of those primary "uses" has been resource extraction, whereby taxpayer-subsidized leases have been granted to logging, mining and energy companies so they can remove and sell timber, ore, oil and gas. Road building is key to these activities so that heavy equipment can be moved in and out. Needless to say, both the road building and the resource extraction itself are very damaging to the forest ecosystem.

In one of his last acts as president in January 2001, Bill Clinton signed an executive order preventing the construction of roads on large areas of wild lands within America"s national forests. The so-called "Roadless Rule" preserved 58.5 million acres of unspoiled forest land in 39 states. But in July 2004, the Bush Administration revamped the law, giving state governors the final say on decisions about opening up otherwise virgin national forest lands to resource extraction.

Environmentalists cheered Clinton"s order back in 2001, contending that roads built on forest lands often punch through wildlife habitat ranges, cause erosion and silting of rivers and streams, and destroy the backcountry experience for human visitors. Industry, however, argued that it infringed on the Forest Service"s guiding principle of multiple uses by essentially excluding a traditional user group—loggers and miners. By revamping the law, the Bush Administration gave the nod to industry, despite the fact that, according to the Heritage Forests Campaign, public comment invited by the Forest Service had been overwhelmingly in favor of the Roadless Rule.

Much of the land in contention is in western states looking to bring jobs and money into otherwise ailing economies. The U.S. Forest Service just recently approved its first new timber leases on lands previously protected from development by the Roadless Rule in the lush southeast section of Alaska, where dwindling natural resources and a sluggish economy have conspired to drive unemployment rates to unprecedented highs. Alaska"s state leadership has traditionally favored extracting and selling the state"s abundant natural resources. New timber leases in previously protected sections of Idaho and Wyoming are expected soon as well.

CONTACTS: U.S. Forest Service Roadless Area Conservation Program, http://roadless.fs.fed.us/; Heritage Forests Campaign, (202) 887-8800, http://www.ourforests.org.