A surprising finding by a team of University of Georgia scientists suggests that curbing the use of antibiotics on poultry farms will do little – if anything – to reduce rates of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that have the potential to threaten human health.

Dr. Margie Lee, professor in the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine, and her colleagues have found that chickens raised on antibiotic-free farms and even those raised under pristine laboratory conditions have high levels of bacteria that are resistant to common antibiotics. Her findings, published in the March issue of the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, suggest that poultry come to the farm harboring resistant bacteria, possibly acquired as they were developing in their eggs.

“The resistances don’t necessarily come from antibiotic use in the birds that we eat,” Lee said, “so banning antibiotic use on the farm isn’t going to help. You have to put in some work before that.”

Lee and her team sampled droppings from more than 140,000 birds under four different conditions: 1.) commercial flocks that had been given antibiotics; 2.) commercial flocks that had not been given antibiotics; 3.) flocks raised in a lab that had been given antibiotics; and 4.) flocks raised in a lab that had not been given antibiotics. The researchers examined levels of antibiotic resistance in normal intestinal bacteria that do not cause human illness and – in a companion study published in May in the same journal – also examined levels of drug resistant campylobacter bacteria, a common food-borne cause of diarrhea, cramping and abdominal pain.

Advertisement

They found that even birds raised in the pristine laboratory conditions had levels of antibiotic resistance levels comparable to what was seen on farms that used antibiotics. Even when the levels were lower, Lee adds, they were still well above the reasonable comfort zone for antibiotic resistance – roughly five to 10 percent.

Seventy-three percent of the bacteria from one flock in the antibiotic-free commercial group were resistant to the drug oxytetracycline, for example, while 90 percent were resistant to the drug in a commercial flock that used antibiotics. Ninety-seven percent were resistant in the experimental flock that was given antibiotics, while forty-seven percent were resistant in the experimental group that was not given antibiotics.

Strikingly, they even found bacteria resistant to streptomycin, a common human antibiotic that is rarely used in poultry and was not used on the farms the researchers studied.