Researchers Aim to Reduce Antimicrobial Resistance in Puerto Rico Dairy Industry

Sep 25, 2023

By Jeff Mulhollem

Funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), a Penn State-led research team will assess levels of antimicrobial-resistant microorganisms in Puerto Rico's dairy industry and train farmers and students to mitigate the health threat they pose in the U.S. territory.

The four-year award, coming from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, will allow the research team to quantify the prevalence of Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus, the bacteria most commonly causing mastitis in dairy cows, on 20 farms across Puerto Rico.

Dairy is one of the most significant economic drivers of Puerto Rico’s agriculture, according to research team leader Ed Dudley, professor of food science. Although dairy farms are documented to be reservoirs for antimicrobial-resistant microorganisms in other global studies, he said there has been no systematic effort to analyze the issue on the island. 

The researchers also will collect data on milk quality and hygiene level to develop extension seminars on the risk of antimicrobial-resistant microorganisms, as well as low-cost, low-barrier solutions dairy farmers in Puerto Rico can implement that will additionally improve milk quality.

The research team will include 16 undergraduates from the University of Puerto Rico Aricebo, who will participate in career seminars intended to prepare future leaders in the antimicrobial-resistant microorganisms field.

“As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is required to follow federal laws and regulations, including the Veterinary Feed Directive — which requires veterinary oversight when food-producing animals are treated with certain antimicrobials,” said Dudley, a microbiologist who directs the E. coli Reference Center at Penn State. “But it is known anecdotally that many farmers in Puerto Rico continue to obtain antibiotics through other sources and administer them to their animals without receiving advice from veterinarians or county extension agents concerning best practices.”

This has created a situation where antimicrobial-resistant organisms are evolving that eventually cannot be treated, he added.

“We are using mastitis — an udder infection usually caused by E. coli or S. aureus — as a model to investigate antimicrobial resistance of these organisms in farm environments around Puerto Rico,” Dudley said. “And we will develop training tools for farmers about prudent use of antimicrobials, as well as train undergraduate students about issues surrounding this global problem.”

Other team members are Yadira Malavez-Acevedo and Jaime Curbelo, University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, and Anna Acosta, a doctoral student in Dudley’s research group at Penn State.

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