What you can learn from pig poop

Yes, it’s gross, but any doctor or scientist will tell you that you can learn a lot from poop. What you eat, how much of it, whether you have an illness, and whether you’re on certain medications can all be read there. And it’s poop that’s helping researchers get a handle on what’ going on in Chinese livestock farming.

When many animals live together in one place, it can be difficult to keep them healthy. Any contagious disease that gets into the population will spread quickly, so farmers turn to medical technology. But when people are presented with a quick and easy solution they can sometimes get carried away.

Pig farmers in the United States and parts of Europe got carried away with using antibiotics with their animals and now they’re working to remedy that situation with federal restrictions. There’s nothing wrong with keeping the critters disease-free, but it can have consequences down the road. Researchers have found that in animals given antibiotics, there’s an increased instance of drug-resistant bacteria. Where did they find the increasingly dangerous bacteria? In the pigs’ poop. And the more drug-resistant bacteria that develop as a way of getting around the antibiotics, the higher the risk of a germ jumping to a human system and infecting people with diseases that don’t respond well to drugs.

As previously mentioned, western countries are starting to get a handle on the problem, albeit slowly. In China, where half the world’s pigs live, the taste for pork is on the rise and so is antibiotic use. Fortunately, researchers in that country are already on the case. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences published a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looking into the levels of antibiotics in pig manure. They invited Michigan State University microbiologist James Tiedje to offer insight from another country. What the researchers found was somewhat good news: While the use of antibiotics in livestock was widespread, there weren’t any farmers that used the drugs in dangerously high levels. Now if you’ll excuse them, they need to go wash their hands.

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