MINNEAPOLIS — As more consumers seek out antibiotic-free meat, some farmers are turning to oregano oil as an alternative therapy to keep livestock healthy. While some preliminary research supports the concept, scientists are reluctant to endorse many of the claims made about the essential oil’s healing powers.
Resistance to antibiotics is a growing crisis, and many point to livestock as a key source of the problem. The Atlantic reported in October that livestock consume 80 percent of the
used in the United States. As a result of antibiotic overuse in animals and humans, disease resistance bacteria are increasingly common, causing an estimated 23,000 deaths in 2013. The World Health organization is increasingly alarmed about the prospect of a world without effective antibiotics.
“A post-antibiotic era—in which common infections and minor injuries can kill—far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the twenty-first century,” the group warned in a 2014 report.
As a result, consumers are increasingly demanding antibiotic-free meat, but agriculture has struggled to keep up with the demand. Some farmers are now experimenting with a derivative of oregano as a way of boosting the health and disease resistance of their livestock. In 2012, The New York Times profiled Scott Sechler, a pig farmer who uses By-O-Reg, known as Ropadiar in Europe, an oregano-based feed supplement, in lieu of antibiotics:
“Mr. Sechler said that nothing he had used as a substitute in the past worked as well as oregano oil.
‘I have worried a bit about how I’m going to sound talking about this,’ he said. ‘But I really do think we’re on to something here.’”
One study in the 1990s suggested oregano oil might be effective at managing diarrhea in pigs that is caused by E. Coli, but subsequent research was unable to reproduce those findings. A study of four organic farms, released in 2009, suggested oregano might help manage internal parasites.
Oregano oil has long been touted as a panacea for a wide variety of medical ailments, but many scientists remain dubious.
Pharmaceuticals rebuttal to oregano oil
“Skeptics of herbal medicines abound, as any quick Internet search demonstrates,” wrote Stephanie Strom in the Times. Scott Gavura, a pharmacist writing in 2011 for Science-Based Medicine, shared this skepticism.
“I would ask customers what they were using it for. I rarely heard the same condition described: skin infections, athlete’s foot, head lice, colds, sore throats, ‘parasites,’ ‘yeasts’, diabetes, allergies and ringworm were apparently no match against the judicious use of oregano oil,” Gavura wrote of consumers’ claims about the treatment. However, after studying the available research, he concluded:
“Oil of oregano, and the claims attached to it, is a great example of how interesting laboratory findings can be wildly exaggerated to imply meaningful effects in humans. A few small studies have been conducted, mainly in the lab, and advocates argue this is evidence of effectiveness. The rest is all anecdotes.”
According to the Times, even supporters of oregano oil like Sechler acknowledge that its use is ineffective in the squalid conditions of confined animal feeding operations, the tightly-packed and disease-ridden environments that gave rise to the high levels of antibiotic use as a disease preventative:
“Mr. Sechler warned that using oregano oil to control bacterial infection also requires maintaining high standards of sanitation in barns where animals are sheltered, as well as good ventilation and light, and a good nutrition program. …
‘You can’t just replace antibiotics with oregano oil and expect it to work,’ Mr. Sechler said.”
Even if oregano oil isn’t the key to disease prevention, in order to prevent a “post-antibiotic” future, big agriculture is going to have to clean up the industry.