Animals, Antibiotics and Superbugs

Cows. Photo by joost j. bakker via Flickr/Wikimedia.

New data released earlier this month by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shows an increase in the already high sale numbers of antibiotics used on industrial farm animals–to the tune of 29.9 million pounds for meat and poultry production in 2011. Compare this to the 7.7 million pounds of antibiotics sold for human use in 2011, according to data from Pew Charitable Trusts.

Beefing ‘Em Up With Drugs

While some antibiotics administered to animals are to treat illnesses, most 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 concentrated animal feeding operations, better known by its acronym, CAFOs.

Many of the antibiotics fed to animals, such as penicillin and tetracycline, are also essential in treating human illnesses and are becoming increasingly less effective. “[B]acteria growing inside animals that are given antibiotics can develop a resistance to the medicines. That resistant bacteria can then be transferred to the soil through animal waste,” explained Jason Newland, director of the Children Mercy’s antibiotic stewardship program, to The Kansas City Star. Transmission also occurs when people eat “undercooked contaminated meat, or by eating other foods or using utensils that have come in contact with meat juices. In addition, farmers, farm families, and slaughterhouse workers are routinely exposed to antibiotics or antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or both.”

Worldwide, doctors, public health experts, and medical organizations have not only acknowledged the pressing concern of antibiotic resistance caused by overuse in industrial farm animals, but have also called for a change in the status quo. In January, the Chief Medical Officer of England, Dame Sally Davies, warned British lawmakers that the rise in antibiotic resistance disease could cause an “apocalyptic scenario” and suggested that the issue be added to the government’s national risk register of civil emergencies. 

Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, stated in a keynote address at the conference on Combating antimicrobial resistance, in Copenhagen, Denmark, last year, that “[t]he antimicrobial threat is easy to describe. It has an irrefutable logic.”

Antimicrobial resistance is on the rise in Europe, and elsewhere in the world. We are losing our first-line antimicrobials. Replacement treatments are more costly, more toxic, need much longer durations of treatment, and may require treatment in intensive care units.

And if currents trends remain unabated, she added, we will enter the post-antibiotic era:

A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it. Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill.

Is Your Meat Bugged?

Another report on antibiotic resistance in retail meat was also released earlier this month by the FDA’s National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS). NARMS monitors the prevalence and trends of antimicrobial resistance among foodborne isolates of Salmonella, Campylobacter, Enterococcus and Escherichia coli. The monitoring system is collaboration between FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and 11 State public laboratories to better understand and disseminate information on antibiotic resistance and assist the FDA in making decisions about approval of antibiotics for the use in animals.

The data gathered by NARS shows troubling trends of antibiotic resistance in retail meat. Compared to 2010, for example, Salmonella on meat and poultry grew more resistant in 2011, said The Pew Charitable Trusts who assisted GMO Journal in digesting the NARMS data. Moreover, nearly 75% of the Salmonella found on retail chicken breast were resistant to at least one antibiotic while about 50% of the Salmonella on retail poultry were resistant to three or more antibiotics–more than twice the rate in 2002.

Ground turkey has its problems too.  Of the salmonella on ground turkey, about 78% were resistant to at least one antibiotic and half of the bacteria were resistant to three or more.

Resistance to tetracycline is also up among Campylobacter on retail chicken. About 95% of chicken products were contaminated with Campylobacter, and nearly half of those bacteria were resistant to tetracyclines.

Other studies on the prevalence of drug resistance bacteria in meat and poultry support the NARMS trend. In 2011, Translational Genomics Research Institute, supported with a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts, found that “[n]early half of the meat and poultry samples — 47 percent — were contaminated with [Staphylococcus] aureus, and more than half of those bacteria — 52 percent — were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics.”

Lawmakers and Regulators Lean Response

Given the importance of antibiotics in treating human illnesses, many say that the response from U.S. lawmakers and regulators can be summed up in two words: not enough. For more than three decades the FDA was on the fence about regulating the meat industry and only recently the agency took its first hesitant steps at stemming this “global crisis” as the World Health Organization dubbed antibiotic resistance back in 2000. Last year, the FDA published the Draft Guidance on the Judicious Use of the Antibiotics.

But is the Draft Guidance, with its no-teeth voluntary compliance policy that has yet to go in effect, enough? In the face of denials by the meat industry of the connection between its animal husbandry practices and antibiotic resistance, voluntary compliance appears to provide the illusion of dealing with antibiotic resistance but also avoids having to take affirmative steps that may upset powerful stakeholders.

The agency also banned certain antibiotics last year–an action which Mark Bittman neatly summed up as follows: “F.D.A. will partially ban a disappearing family of antibiotics that is relatively non-existent in animal agriculture and that the meat industry does not rely upon.”

Few legislators in Congress are listening but they alone cannot effectuate change without greater support from their Congressional colleagues. Rep. Slaughter, for example, has been introducing The Preservation of Antibiotics For Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) for years, and the bill has yet to pass through a committee. In response to the NARMS data, Rep. Slaughter said that “[w]e are standing on the brink of a public health catastrophe.”

Denmark Model

Banning antibiotics for non-veterinary purposes is doable. Case in point-Denmark and the European Union. Denmark ended the administration of antibiotics as growth-promoters in the late 1990s, well before the EU-wide ban. Dr. Gail Hansen, the senior officer for the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, told GMO Journal in an email that Denmark “reacted to overwhelming scientific evidence that using antibiotics to promote growth was breeding drug-resistant, disease-causing superbugs,” when it phased out the use of antibiotics.

“Of course, we have that same evidence here in the United States,” also observed Dr. Hansen but the information has yet to influence lawmakers.

Why? Dr. Chan of WHO suggested that the public plays a role in steering lawmakers to pay attention to the data:

Never underestimate the importance of consumer groups and civil society in combating antimicrobial resistance. They are important movers, shakers, and front-line players, especially in this age of social media.