WASHINGTON - In the typical chicken house on the Eastern Shore, tens of thousands of cramped and clucking fowl munch on antibiotics that should be used to cure human illness, not prod chickens to fatten faster.
Until recently, there was a storehouse of antibiotics that could handily fight even the nastiest of infectious diseases. But the overuse of these miracle drugs - in hospitals, consumer products, veterinary clinics, cattle feedlots and hog and chicken factories - is resulting in the spread of super bugs doctors may be unable to cure.
Today, more than 8 billion chickens, cattle and hogs raised for the dinner table in the United States receive some type of antibiotic during their lifetime - not to cure disease, but to promote growth.
The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that the total yearly use of antibiotics in healthy livestock has climbed from 16 million pounds in the mid-1980s to 25 million pounds today. About 11 million pounds of that total are used in poultry feed, 10 million pounds in hog feed and 4 million pounds in cattle feed.
By contrast, only 3 million pounds of antibiotics are used in human medicine. That means we are using eight times the amount of antibiotics in healthy animals that we use to treat diseases in our children and ourselves.
Meat producers rely on antibiotics not just because they promote growth, but because of how they promote growth. The drugs' fattening effects come mostly from bracing the chickens against the highly stressful conditions inside a chicken house. As a result, the birds reach slaughter weight on less feed. And lower feed costs mean higher company profits.
I recently toured a chicken house and saw firsthand how stressful the environment is. First, if you think chicken houses smell bad from the highway, the air inside is unbearably foul. Particles of manure and feathers hover like a fog while a pall of ammonia stings the eyes. On the ground, a sea of chickens swirls as they seek a little space, decent air and another snack. After 10 minutes in the chicken house I felt as if I needed an antibiotic.
And therein lies the tradeoff.
The overuse of antibiotics in livestock production may mean that one day those drugs might not work for my family or me. Doctors are beginning to do their part to combat the resistance problem. In the spring, the nation's second largest medical association published prescription guidelines to reduce the use of antibiotics by 20 or 30 percent.
So if doctors are tackling the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine, why don't meat producers curtail their unnecessary use in livestock?
Carole Morison, a chicken grower near Pocomoke City on contract with Perdue, wishes she could raise her flocks with fewer antibiotics. But like all other Eastern Shore contract growers, she has no say over her birds' diet.
Perdue delivers the baby chicks, supplies the antibiotics and feed and treats the water. For the chicken growers to earn their 3.5 cents a pound, they have to play by the rules of the only game in town.
Enlightened companies across the country are already growing livestock without antibiotics and turning a healthy profit. Such producers will be the ones positioned to reap even greater earnings as the public's concern over antibiotic resistance grows.
As for me, my confidence is already shaken. I'm not ready to swear off chicken just yet. But I am going to pass on the poultry from companies that continue to rely on the overuse of antibiotics to raise their birds.
Rich Hayes is a spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.