antibiotics

Banning non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in food-producing animals would have a double impact:

1/ putting an end to the development of new strains of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans.

2/ improving the living conditions of the animals in order to keep them healthy despite the ban on “preventive” antibiotics: eliminating overcrowding, allowing for animals to express their natural behaviors, and replacing inappropriate, disease-inducing diets (such as corn for cattle; cheap, genetically-modified corn) with the food that Nature intended.

In human health care, antibiotic use is generally confined to the treatment of illness. In contrast, antibiotics often are used on industrial farms not only to treat sick animals but also to offset crowding and poor sanitation, as well as to spur animal growth. In fact, up to 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to healthy food animals.[1] Or more than 25 million pounds of antibiotics a year. This makes the U.S. one of the biggest users of antibiotics in food animal production in the world.[2]

Most of the antibiotics used on farms in the U.S. are obtained and used without the consultation of a veterinarian. The lack of oversight, coupled with the magnitude of administration of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes, has potentially serious consequences for human health.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the CDC testified before Congress that there was a definitive link between the routine, non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in food animal production and the crisis of antibiotic resistance in humans.[3] Moreover, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other leading medical groups all warn that the routine use of antibiotics in food animals creates new strains of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Read more on this issue on the website of The Pew Charitable Trusts, and find out about The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming.

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) was recently sued by a roster of environmental and consumer groups for doing precisely nothing (lest you consider non-binding recommendations something) to stop the onslaught of non-therapeutic antibiotics in animal farms, despite its recognition of the threat to public health caused by antibiotics-tainted meat (after all, the agency first proposed a ban on this use of antibiotics in 1977, but Congress ordered more research!). It gave some lip service early April 2012 by releasing guidance for farmers, ranchers and agricultural production companies recommending – but not requiring – that they gradually stop using antibiotics identified as important in the treatment human diseases. The FDA also asked drug manufacturers to voluntarily change their package labels to say that the antibiotics should not be used to improve production but still may be used, when recommended by a veterinarian, to prevent or treat animal disease.

A full outright ban on the sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics has successful precedents abroad. In 1986, Sweden was the first country to ban antibiotics from animal feed. As diseases spread among piglet litters and mortality increased by 1.2 percent at the national level, farmers had to revise their practices and improve the living conditions of their animals. Denmark, the world’s largest pork exporter, followed suit in the late 1990s. It recently briefed Congress [4] on the successful outcome of that decision. Finally, five years after the European Union banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters, South Korea, the #1 importer of U.S. beef in the first quarter of 2011, implemented “a total ban on the addition of antibiotics to animal feed” on July 1st, 2011.

In fact, legislation has already been introduced in Congress to address this problem from the human health angle. The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA, H.R. 965, S. 1211) would withdraw the routine use of seven classes of antibiotics vitally important to human health from food animal production unless animals or herds are sick with disease or unless drug companies can prove that their use does not harm human health. It’s not an outright ban although definitely a step in the right direction. Hundreds of groups already support this legislation including the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatricians, Infectious Diseases Society of America, the American Nurses Association and the World Health Organization.

Footnotes:

[1] Margaret Mellon, C. Benbrook, and K. L. Benbrook, Hogging It! Estimates of Antimicrobial Abuse in Livestock (Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2001).

[2] See Letter from Denmark on Non-therapeutic Use of Antimicrobials, page 6.

[3] Hearing: Antibiotic Resistance and the Use of Antibiotics in Animal Agriculture, Subcommittee on Health, Energy and Commerce Committee, U.S. House of Representatives, July 12, 2010. 8 Ibid.

[4] See Letter from Denmark on Non-therapeutic Use of Antimicrobials.