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Antibiotic Use on Farms Linked to Food Allergies

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Watch how researchers are working to make agricultural communities safer for children and families in this four-minute California Matters with Mark Bittman video.

For years, there's been a growing consensus among scientists that our use of antibiotics should be more judicious. Using them in animals to make them larger to provide us with more meat has given rise to worries about the creation of superbugs. Using them in people has perhaps led to the food allergy epidemic that plagues us today.

But now there's another reason we need to focus on trying to jam the antibiotics genie back into its bottle: Some of us may be allergic to the antibiotic pesticides used to grow our food.

The troubling story comes from the new issue of Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, a medical journal that tracks -- well, the title probably says it all. In it, they analyze the case of a 10-year-old girl who developed a severe allergic reaction after eating a blueberry pie. While the young girl has plenty of allergies to worry about (including seasonal allergies, as well as allergies to milk and penicillin), there was nothing in the pie ingredients that should have placed her at risk. At yet, she still got sick.

The doctors were stumped. And when doctors get stumped, they run tests. One of them tested the girl for an allergic reaction to an antibiotic pesticide that was sprayed on the blueberries at the farm where they were grown. Lo and behold:

The researchers determined that the problem was a blueberry that had been treated with streptomycin, an antibiotic that's used in people to fight off germs and in plants to keep bacteria, fungi and algae at bay.

It's not the first time the antibiotic streptomycin has come under fire, most recently last May when it was banned by the National Organic Standards Board for use by anyone who wants to retain their organic certification. (Apple and pear growers have until October to remove it from their farms.) But it's not necessarily the specific pesticide that's the cause for concern here -- even the authors of the report admit the allergic reaction by the 10-year-old girl is extremely rare -- as much as it being further evidence that our country's regulators need to pay closer attention to antibiotic usage.

Even if the girl -- or her parents, probably more accurately -- did everything they could to make sure she did not eat anything that would put her danger, she still would have developed a terrible allergic reaction. And that's because of the trace of pesticide -- something that's still technically considered "organic," mind you -- on the berries. This means that if you are one of the unlucky ones with this specific allergy, there's virtually no way to guard against it other than wishing really, really, really hard.

That's a failure of our public health regulations.

Things may seem to be getting better when it comes to antibiotic usage at farms. Perdue Farms, one of the country's largest producers of poultry, made a big announcement this week, saying they no longer use "antibiotics used in human medicinal consumption," an important move even if those extra qualifiers following "antibiotics" take a little shine off the news. But that doesn't necessarily mean others are going to follow suit. And anyway, waiting for Big Food to determine when they're going to stop antibiotic usage, and which ones they're cutting, is backwards thinking. The regulation needs to come from an actual governing body.

As the author of the study notes:

"Certain European countries ban the use of antibiotics for growing foods, but the United States and Canada still allow them for agricultural purposes," Des Roches said in a journal news release.

Perhaps banning them outright is a pipe dream. But creating a legitimate set of regulations for farms to follow is something that should have happened years ago.

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