For almost a decade the only estimate of the amount of antibiotics used by the meat industry on farm animals came from Union of Concerned Scientists who put the estimate at about 70% of antibiotics sold in United States. Newly released data by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shows that ten years later the numbers are even higher. As discussed by Ralph Loglisci, the Project Director of John Hopkins Healthy Monday Project, the FDA data showed that almost 80% of the total number of antibiotics sold in 2009 were reserved for livestock and poultry.
Why should you care? Chew on this: antibiotics are losing their effectiveness and your dinner is a large contributing factor.
Antibiotics are fed to animals to promote growth and to negate hazardous conditions created by the factory-style practice of confining large numbers of animals into overcrowded containment areas commonly known as CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) or IFAPs (industrial farm animal productions). As Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy wrote,
Bacteria in these factory farms are exposed to low levels of antibiotics for long periods of time. These conditions create a perfect formula for breeding bacteria resistant to many or all of these antibiotics. What’s worse is that many of the antibiotics used to raise factory farmed animals (without any prescription) are identical or nearly so to the prescription drugs doctors rely upon for treating sick human patients.
While the meat industry wants to deny the undeniable, the fact is that the world’s prominent medical, agricultural, and veterinary authorities have reached a consensus that antibiotic overuse in animal agriculture is contributing to serious human public health problems.
“[T]here is unequivocal evidence and relationship between [the] use of antibiotics in animals and [the] transmission of antibiotic-resistant bacteria causing adverse effects in humans,” testified Rear Admiral Ali S. Khan this past summer before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Dr. Ali Khan is currently Assistant Surgeon General and Director of Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.
A joint scientific analysis cosponsored by the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the World Organization for Animal Health concluded: “[T]here is clear evidence of adverse human health consequences [from agricultural use of antibiotics, including]…infections that would not have otherwise occurred, increased frequency of treatment failures (in some cases death) and increased severity of infections.”
Similarly, Dr. Thomas Frieden, Center for Disease Control director, told Congress this past July that there is “compelling evidence” of “a clear link between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.”
It’s not a disaster waiting to happen, it is a disaster happening now.
Antibiotic resistant bacterial infections increase health care costs by over $20 billion each year and increase societal costs by $35 billion. Two million Americans acquire a bacterial infection during their hospital stay every year, and 70 percent of their infections will be resistant to the drugs commonly used to treat them. As a result, every day thirty-eight patients in our hospitals will die of those infections. [Rep. Louise M. Slaughter]
What has the government done to stem the tide of antibiotic resistance? Not enough, many would say. Still, an effort has been made by FDA and certain lawmakers to lessen the severity of this problem by seeking to curb the prophylactic use of antibiotics in healthy animals and the use of antibiotics to promote growth.
This past summer FDA announced voluntary guidelines which recommend that the meat industry stop using antibiotics for purposes of growth promotion (an issue that the FDA has been looking at since the 1970s and has not done anything until now). But that’s not enough say many medical experts and food safety advocates, who argue that FDA’s guidelines need more bite. The American Medical Association and the Infectious Diseases Society of America all find that the FDA’s voluntary rules are not nearly enough to address the severity of antibiotic resistance that now plagues hospitals. These organizations would bar most uses of key antibiotics in healthy animals, including use for disease prevention.
If the FDA Commissioner, Margaret Hamburg recognizes that “[w]e no longer have effective ways to treat serious infectious disease,” why are the FDA guidelines merely voluntary?
There have also been attempts at the Congressional level to address antibiotic overuse in farm animals. Rep. Louise Slaughter, the only microbiologist in Congress, has been trying to get the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) passed for years. In 2009 Rep. Slaughter, together with 100 co-sponsors, introduced PAMTA, which would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to withdraw the use of seven classes of antibiotics vitally important to human health from use on factory farms unless animals or herds are sick with disease. The bill never made it out of the committee stage before the end of the Congressional term and was therefore taken off the books.
An official spokesperson for Rep. Slaughter informed GMO Journal that the Congresswoman will be reintroducing PAMTA in this session of Congress. The bill will be mostly the same as that introduced in the 111th session of Congress, with any necessary changes or updates based on new findings and data available. Rep. Slaugher is hoping for support from Republican lawmakers because “after all, public health should not be a partisan issue.”