The Man Who Turned Antibiotics Into Animal Feed: Part 1
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 10, 2014
I did the research for this story with help from an Alicia Patterson Fellowship. This version appears today in the Australian science magazine Cosmos:
On Christmas Day in 1948, a biochemist named Thomas H. Jukes slipped away from his family and made the short drive to his workplace at drug company Lederle Laboratories in Pearl River, New York. A small experiment with chickens was in progress, and the subordinate who would normally have weighed and fed the birds was home for the holiday.
As he made his rounds, Jukes noticed something peculiar. In one group of a dozen chicks, the feed was being supplemented with a pricey new liver extract, which was certain to make those birds gain weight much faster than normal. But Jukes was puzzled that birds in another group were growing even faster. The only thing added to their feed was a new antibiotic called Aureomycin. “The record shows,” Jukes later wrote, staking his claim to the discovery, “that I weighed the chicks on Christmas Day, 1948.”
No one understood how or why an inexpensive antibiotic could cause animals to put on meat more rapidly. (Even now, researchers talk only about “proposed possible mechanisms” to explain it.) But after some quick follow-up work in the field confirmed the finding, Lederle rolled out its product. It was the beginning of a vast uncontrolled experiment to transform the biology of the animals we eat – and perhaps also the biology of the humans who eat them. Antibiotics added to feed at very small, or subtherapeutic, levels would quickly become a standard tool for rearing food animals, so much so that, even now, about 80% of antibiotic sales in the US go to livestock production rather than to human health care.
The food industry has long argued that any limit on use of antibiotics in livestock feed would be an agricultural disaster, or at least the end of affordable meat. But critics are applying increasing pressure on the industry to address its share of the blame for an epidemic of antibiotic-resistant infections that kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide each year. So how did antibiotics get into our food supply in the first place? It was largely the work of one otherwise highly esteemed researcher, as well as a classic case of economic interests distorting scientific judgment.