Antibiotic-Brined Chicken amd Other Bad Ideas from US Farming

Megan Molteni | Wired | September 6, 2017

These days, the only thing more American than apple pie is eating an animal raised on antibiotics. Eighty percent of antibiotics sold in the US go not to human patients, but to the nation’s plate-bound pigs, cows, turkeys, and chickens. As these wonder drugs became a mainstay of modern agriculture, factory farms began churning out another, far less welcome commodity—antibiotic resistant bacteria. These deadly new microbial threats are expected to claim the lives of 10 million people by 2050. How did this happen? And where does it end?

Those are the kinds of questions that superbug sleuth Maryn McKenna asks in her newest book Big Chicken, due out September 12th. Through stories told in carefully researched detail, the veteran science journalist (and one-time WIRED bacteria beat blogger) tracks down the origins of antibiotics in America’s food system, and follows their rapid expansion throughout the agricultural industry with devastating downstream consequences. It is at once a classic tale of runaway science gone wrong and the singular history of America’s favorite food. Though, after reading it, you may never want to eat chicken again.

WIRED: You’ve been writing about the rise of antibiotic resistance for more than a decade. When did you realize that it was really a story about the poultry industry?

McKenna: It started when I was working on my last book, Superbug, which came out seven years ago. I went into that project thinking there were two epidemics of MRSA. One was in hospitals dating back to pretty early in the antibiotic era. The second was a much larger, more mysterious, community epidemic that was killing kids and ending the careers of professional athletes in the 90s, that we were completely unequipped to deal with as a society. But I realized pretty late in my reporting there weren’t two epidemics, there were actually three. The third one was MRSA on farms. When I realized that at the same time people were blaming medicine for antibiotic resistance, farmers were feeding literal tons—like 63,000 tons a year—of antibiotics to livestock, that fundamentally did not make sense to me...