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How a flood of antibiotics landed in your chicken

BY   August 9, 2017 at 4:46 PM EDT
Chickens are in a farm for producing daily eggs. Photo by grit.wattanapruek/Adobe

In the book Big Chicken, Maryn McKenna shows from page one how feeding antibiotics to our food — namely chicken livestock — can land a person in the emergency room. Photo by grit.wattanapruek/Adobe

“Eighty percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States and more than half of those sold around the world are used in animals, not humans.” That’s a staggering statistic, and one of many revelations made in the upcoming book, “Big Chicken” by award-winning science journalist Maryn McKenna.

In “Big Chicken,” McKenna chronicles in exquisite detail how humanity went from developing antibiotics to prevent the world’s worst bacteria, to standing on the verge of an onslaught of unstoppable diseases. Early on, she describes how antibiotic resistance can feel like a faraway fear. A concern reserved for the occasional news segment about a hospital outbreak in some town you’ve never heard of.

“Drug-resistant infections have no celebrity spokespeople, negligible political support and few patients’ organizations advocating for them,” writes McKenna, author of two other critically acclaimed books on outbreaks, “Superbug” and “Beating Back The Devil.”

That isn’t too surprising. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria kill 700,000 people worldwide annually, and 23,000 in the U.S. Cancer claims 25 times as many American lives per year, stroke kills five times as many, and heck, even the flu kills more people than antibiotic resistant germs right now.

But a tsunami is coming. Scientists predict these superbugs will cause 10 million deaths worldwide by 2050. And unlike many of the other big boys of mortality, we know the solution: Stop misusing antibiotics.

While doctor prescriptions are often blamed for the rise of antibiotic resistance, McKenna shows from page one how feeding these drugs to our food — namely chicken livestock — can land a person in the emergency room. Her narrative exposes how the economics of meat, world wars and hunger drove the expansion of chicken production across the globe. Antibiotics allowed for the practice of raising hundreds of chickens in tight quarters, without fear of disease — at least for a time.

These poultry practices cultivated nasty foodborne outbreaks, and McKenna relies on interviews with farmers, doctors, disease detectives and patients to narrate the complete history that bred this mess. But as the excerpt below details, the use of antibiotics with poultry surfaced, not as a means to keep chickens from illness, but through a serendipitous 10-ounce discovery.

“Big Chicken” by Maryn McKenna will be published by National Geographic Partners on September 12, and is available for pre-order now wherever books are sold.

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