A virus travels around the world in 24 hours—guess what: so does antimicrobial resistance
Keeping animals healthy creates a thorny problem that's the subject of Palmer's third research stream: antimicrobial resistance.
Families with four head of livestock, or even 10 head, are not likely to use antibiotics on their animals. But as cities and
populations grow, much of the world's demand for protein will generate huge pressure to protect livestock investments with
antibiotics—often antibiotics that have been banned in the United States for more than three decades.
So even as the developing world craves more protein to feed its hungry, the method it uses to produce protein is a ticking
time bomb. At the end of the fuse is the next dangerous microbe for which mankind has no remedy. Palmer says the idea that
the developed world can protect itself from antimicrobial resistance by enacting strict antibiotic controls for meat production
is simply "a fool's paradise."
"There's a lot of talk about how we need better inspection of animal products coming into the U.S.," he explains. "You get
no argument from me on that. But we need to realize that inspections don't actually solve the problem, because people come
People can pick up antibiotic resistance wherever they are, Palmer continues, especially in areas where antibiotics are used
very heavily. "We find antibiotic residues in eggs in Nigeria, for example, without any problem," he says. "So the eggs I'm
enjoying in the hotel in Nigeria, the resistance in them shows up in Kansas City 24 hours later. They say a pathogen can travel
around the globe in 24 hours. So can antimicrobial resistance."
In fact, in a February article published by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, Palmer and WSU colleague
Douglas R. Call cited a 2001 study suggesting that antibiotic-resistance traits travel the globe at exponentially higher levels than pathogens.
A good example of the complexity of the problem can be found in Denmark, Palmer wrote, where strict inspection and strict
laws have dramatically reduced the levels of antibiotics in pork and poultry. Unfortunately, pork and poultry also enter Denmark
from other far less careful parts of the world. The emerging question is whether people will be willing to pay a premium for
strictly controlled livestock products. The problem is exacerbated in the poorest countries where the dangers of antimicrobial
resistance are pitted against the dangers of starvation. "No one can argue this isn't a fantastic achievement for Denmark,"
Palmer says. "The problem is that the rest of the world doesn't look like Denmark. Only Denmark looks like Denmark. This is
great for Denmark, but you can't apply it to India. It isn't going to work."
The world doesn't just want cheap food; it needs cheap food, Palmer says. In particular, it needs cheap protein sources. "It's
very easy to say, 'Well, Nigeria should really crack down and regulate their antimicrobial use in animals,'" he says. "They
should. But that's probably not their highest priority."
In rural sub-Saharan Africa, the typical livestock-producing family owns an average of 10 chickens. They don't use antibiotics
to protect their investment. If they lose a chicken, they get another from a neighbor and they're back in business. Tyson
Foods, on the other hand, has an enormous investment to protect, so the company spends heavily on the latest biosecurity techniques.
A slip-up would cost it millions. But in the developing world, midlevel producers are emerging with flocks of 500 or 1,000
birds, and that's where the most frightening problem lies, Palmer says. "Biocontainment is now replaced by antibiotics," he
explains. "The danger is not only amounts, but which antibiotics they use. Specifically, chloramphenicol is used in Nigeria.
It's sold on the street. You can find it in the eggs. And it's been banned for any use in food animals in the U.S. for 30
This challenge, Palmer says, will confront veterinarians who work on the world stage for decades. Global population is expected
to peak around 2050, he says, so enormous pressure will build worldwide for animal protein production. If better systems aren't
developed, if new ideas aren't brought to bear on the problem, if political will isn't strengthened, Palmer says, much of
that animal protein "will be covered in antibiotics."