Antibiotic Resistance, Emerging Viruses and the Fallacy of Personal Choice

In the United States, our way of viewing the world seems particularly grounded in the notion that we have a right to do exactly what we want to do, when we want to do it. And yes, we do have this right, but to a point: the point, specifically, where the actions that one person performs have consequences that infringe on another person’s rights. This spillover is what economists term a “negative externality”, in which a cost or benefit emanating from one person’s activity affects an otherwise uninvolved, uninformed party.

The idea of a negative externality is exactly what underpins the prohibition of smoking cigarettes in certain areas. A person has a right to smoke and inflict upon himself the cost of heightened cancer risk, but it is unlawful to impose that risk on non-smoking bystanders. Thus, we see that a person’s right to enjoy a cigarette is trumped by the rights other people have to good health.


The same logic can be applied to the “personal” choice of consuming an animal product. Certainly there is a case to be made that consuming an animal is never a personal choice alone, because the animal is directly impacted. But let’s restrict this conversation to humans only. What about those humans indirectly, negatively impacted?

The first week of April brought two related, equally frightening manifestations of the negative externalities associated with animal consumption. The first is a report in the New York Times of a new strain of avian flu, H7N9, that has emerged in China and killed six people. It appears that the virus has not mutated to allow for human-human transmission, but officials have preemptively slaughtered 20,000 birds in Shanghai. The increasing contact of humans with densely confined domestic animals has resulted in the transmission of novel diseases from animals to humans, such as the swine and avian flus. Global demand for chicken with market forces that reward the least cost investment in animal health and welfare has impacted all members of society by exposing us to pandemics, whether or not we support such production practices. This is a negative externality.

The second harbinger of externalities to come is an excellent new paper in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine. The researchers used DNA sequences from the entire genome of bacterial samples in saliva to determine that new strains of methicillin resistant Staphyloccocus aureus (MRSA) were transmitted from livestock to two humans working on two separate farms in Denmark. Although no human-human transmission has occurred yet, what is particularly worrying is that a mutation in this new strain obscures detection under standard screening procedures, making it difficult to track. Sadly, this is not an anomaly. For example, in response to the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture in the US, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) has introduced a bill to curb this excess use and preserve antibiotics’ bacteria-fighting power for medical purposes. This is necessary because bacteria inevitably evolve by natural selection to become resistant to antibiotics through time, and the more they are exposed to antibiotics, the more chances they have to overcome them

Even though I may never touch a diseased bird or contribute to the demand for poultry by consuming chicken, I am still at risk for contracting H7N9. I still have a chance of acquiring an antibiotic resistant infection. It’s not just me as an individual who is affected – in 2012, Forbes magazine found that poor health costs the US economy $576 billion a year. Imagine what fraction of those flu cases might be averted if we had fewer animals living in cramped conditions producing viruses and antibiotic resistant bacteria that spread quickly across the globe.


Every choice has consequences. But the rippling of those consequences across other members of society defines whether or not that choice is “personal”. And clearly, a choice to consume animals affects us all.

Image Source: Fred/Flickr