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Here in the heart of Central Nebraska sits the largest livestock think-tank in the world. As a major beef research center, one of its projects is studying cattle for antibiotic overuse and whether there's a connection to humans.
We went to the research center for some answers. News 5's Dara Newson has this special report:
Hidden in the small town of Clay Center is the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center.
"Which ones are more susceptible to getting sick in the feedlot and needing to be treated and which ones are just naturally more resistant to the bacteria and the bugs," said Chad Engle.
Chad Engle is the livestock operations manager for the research center where animal health is a priority.
"Our biggest treatment that we use it for is called Bovine Respiratory disease and it's basically like a pneumonia," Engle said.
To combat infections ranchers use antibiotics via injection or other preventive measures.
Each day the pen riders come out and check the cattle for any signs of illness. They check and make sure they're breathing is okay, their nose and eyes are clear if they detect any signs of illness they send them in for treatment.
In the world of "fix it with a pill" looms another health crisis in "humans".
In 2012 the FDA cracked down on ranchers and farmers prohibiting them from using unusual doses of drugs.
"The antibiotics that we use are a very important tool to us to keep our animals healthy, to keep them growing, it's something that's just a tool that we use under the guidance and care of our veterinarians/ They are prescription drugs," Engle said.
Research has shown startling potential correlations between the overuse of antibiotics particularly medicine to make cows gain weight and drug resistance in humans.
Dr. Asha Schweitzer of Mary Lanning weighs in on the problem.
"The more often your body is introduced to different medications, antibiotics, the more often bacteria become resistant to that type of medication," said Dr. Schweitzer.
There's fear of a vicious bacterial epidemic.
The CDC indicates hospitals and other healthcare settings are battling drug-resistant organisms that spread inside medical institutions.
"Even vancomycin - one of the most powerful drugs that we use to cure especially strains that are maybe resistant to other antibiotics - that has also been now resistant in some bacteria species," said Dr. Schweitzer.
But, veterinarian and professor of the Nebraska Great Plains Educational Center Dee Griffin doesn't see resistance to medications or residue from drugs given to cattle as an issue.
"The kidney becomes the one thing they're going to test, at the same time they pull the kidney, they take samples of muscle, liver other tissues, if it tests positive, then the animal is going to get locked up, it's not going anywhere," said Griffin.
Few argue against treating animals for illness. Ongoing research shows superbugs are becoming almost impossible to kill.
"There has been research shown that it can cross contaminate either by their feces into the soil or water or by food that we consume," Dr. Schweitzer said.
So for now, with new FDA rules limiting antibiotics in animals the problem may be stalled. The question, is how long before another nasty disease strikes again?
So what would happen if the FDA banned antibiotics in food animals completely? That's the challenge making changes to protect the overall population without hurting the industry.
Using antibiotics is standard for operating procedures in livestock. Plus, using antibiotics in cattle is the only way to lower meat costs for consumers.
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