Protect Your Family From Swine Flu

By Shawn Dell Joyce

The recent swine flu outbreak highlighted how our food system is making us sick. Our best antibiotics are losing their effectiveness, and we are percolating super microbes on our factory farms. Antibiotics have saved countless lives, but recently antibiotic-resistant infections are on the rise. Microbes have been on the planet a lot longer than we have, can evolve a lot quicker, and have begun to overcome our best defenses. Currently, more than two million Americans are infected each year by resistant germs, and 14,000 die as a result, the World Health Organization reports.

In an effort to produce cheap meat, factory farming has been cramming more and more animals into smaller spaces, and feeding them antibiotics to prevent infections. When antibiotics are given to a living creature, our systems can only use about 5 percent. The rest (95 percent) is excreted into the environment. Snippets of antibiotic DNA wind up in soil microbes and other bacteria because these tiny creatures “swap” genes, constantly exchanging genetic information and evolving.

One study found antibiotic-laced DNA in all water sources tested; from effluent ponds on factory dairy farms, wastewater recycling plants, to drinking-water treatment plants, and even wild river sediments. Amy Pruden, one of the study’s researchers, found that the DNA that helps make germs resistant to antibiotics was hundreds to thousands of times higher in water affected by people or factory farms, but still prevalent in smaller quantities in pristine water sources.

A 2001 study by University of Illinois microbiologist Roderick Mackie documented antibiotic-resistant genes in groundwater downstream from pig farms, and also in local soil organisms which normally do not contain them. His research found that tainted DNA was in the bodies, underfoot in the soil, and in the water around conventional feedlots. Mackie noted that soil bacteria around antibiotic-using farms carried 100 to 1,000 times more resistance genes than the same soil bacteria around organic farms.

Wastewater lagoons attract wildlife like migratory geese and ducks that carry strains of the Avian Flu. When the wildlife add their microbes, we create an unnatural combination of resistant bacteria. Worse, feedlots often use the wastewater lagoons to irrigate crops. A University of Kansas environmental engineer noticed a dramatic spike in antibiotic resistant genes happening on one Kansas feedlot. He discovered that new calves were given “shock doses” of antibiotics which they promptly excreted into the lagoons. That effluent was pumped to the fields to fertilize the cattle feed.

They were spraying the crops with highly resistant bacteria from the lagoon, and then feeding it back to the cattle, which we later eat.

Conservation medicine has been warning us for years about the potential for an outbreak. Doctors estimate that 75 percent of human illness originates with animals, such as Avian Flu, Lyme disease, West Nile virus, Legionnaire’s and so on. Preventing and treating outbreaks through conservation medicine involves treating the root environmental problems, such as loss of deer habitat bringing deer (and ticks carrying Lyme) closer to humans.

Another study of the mouths of healthy kindergartners found that 97 percent had bacteria with antibiotic resistant DNA for four out of six tested antibiotics. Resistant microbes comprised 15 percent of the children’s oral bacteria, although none of the children had taken antibiotics in the past three months.

Mexico, and many other countries are vying for American markets by producing food exports in unsanitary and often immoral conditions. These conditions are often worse crucibles for disease-resistant microbes than American factory farms. If you really want to protect yourself and your family from superbugs like the swine flu, avian flu and other human-folly diseases:

  • A study released in March found standard soap and 10 seconds of scrubbing to be among the most effective ways to get rid of bacteria. With 10 seconds of scrubbing, soap and water gets rid of the common cold virus, hepatitis A, and a host of other illness-bearing germs, the study found.
  • Eat local! Support small-scale local farms that produce meat using organic practices, and “free-range”, or “pastured” methods instead of confining animals (and microbes) to small areas where disease breeds. These farms can be found on
  • Shawn Dell Joyce is an award-winning sustainability writer, artist, and founder of the Wallkill River School in the Mid-Hudson region of New York. Shawn can be reached at


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