MUNICH — Citing the failure of antibiotics to work effectively in their patients, a group of German doctors and other healthcare providers are laying blame on the factory farming industry — and calling for reform.

The doctors say that antibiotics no longer work because of multi-resistant germs that patients carry, at least some of which have their origins in the way animals are bred. Germs from agro-industrial facilities that are resistant to antibiotics are a massive threat to human health, the campaign founders say.

The first nationwide campaign of this type is so far being supported by 250 doctors, carers and pharmacists. They are demanding humane breeding of animals, sharper controls, and sanctions against those who put antibiotics in animal feed.

If action is not taken, antibiotics may soon be entirely ineffective as a weapon against bacterial infections in both humans and animals, warns professor of veterinary medicine Siegfried Ueberschär. Doctors now often try in vain to save the lives and health of patients with weak immune systems, and there are no new antibiotics in sight, says Bremen-based internist Imke Lührs.

The spread of so-called hospital germs, known in medical circles as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), has become alarming, the movement's supporters say. In areas with a high density of breeding farms, some 30% of the MRSA germs in high-risk patients come from the agricultural environment.

Laced feed

Antibiotic-resistant germs can also be found in the food chain. They come from the water of defrosting frozen poultry and from fresh chicken and turkey, up to 42% of which has been affected by resistant germs. In a screening in May, controllers also found antibiotic-resistant germs in fresh Mettwurst sausage.

The main cause of the problem is the large number of antibiotics used by animal breeders. Over three-fourths of pigs and poultry are given a great deal of antibiotics during their life — “the approximate equivalent of 20 years of permanent medication in a human.” Just how many antibiotics German breeders use has only been monitored nationwide since 2011. Legislation that makes it mandatory for breeders and vets to register the antibiotics they use has only existed for a short while.

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) also sees increased risk from factory farming. “Resistance by pathogens in animals and food are a serious problem in consumer health protection,” says BfR President Andreas Hensel. Specialized authorities are working on remedying the situation. “Further improvements in animal breeding conditions are inevitable — difficult to implement, but they have to have priority,” says Bernd-Alois Tenhagen, BfR expert for antibiotic resistance.

The goal for animal farmers has to be to keep livestock in such a way that they don’t get sick in the first place. “And for that to happen, the animals need enough room, fresh air, and good food,” Tenhagen says.

The Federal Association of Practicing Veterinarians has reacted with reserve to the initiative, and has so far not lent its support to the campaign. Its position is that it is the job of politics, not vets, to ensure better conditions for farm animals.