Scientists to Washington: Regulate Antibiotic Use in Animal Agriculture!

photo from Janice Carr, Public Health image Library (PHIL)

I've been trying to come up with a phrase for the blogging equivalent of shouting till you're blue in the face… typing till you're numb in the fingers?  Posting till you're sore in the carpals? In any case, that’s how I feel whenever I write about the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture.  The issue (and I'm mustering extreme willpower to refrain from typing all in caps) is this: US industrial livestock producers administer huge quantities of antibiotics to farm animals for nontherapeutic purposes, which promotes the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, reducing the effectiveness of medicines used to treat human illness.

In short, the industrial livestock sector’s use of antibiotics is completely irresponsible – and it’s totally insane that regulations have not been created to prevent this public health threat.

Industrial livestock producers regularly administer subtherapeutic doses to healthy animals in order to promote growth and prevent disease (since factory farms confine so many animals in cramped, stressful, squalid conditions, disease spreads easily; antibiotics help mitigate the impact).

Last week, Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Representative Louise Slaughter and Senator Dianne Feinstein hosted a congressional briefing to emphasize this point.  Aptly titled The Science Is Clear: Inappropriate Antibiotic Use in Animal Agriculture Threatens Public Health, the event involved a series of presentations by Dr. James Johnson (University of Minnesota), Dr. Robert Lawrence (Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future), Dr. Stuart Levy (Tufts University, Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics), Dr. Lance Price (Translational Genomics Research Institute’s Center for Microbiomics and Human Health) and Dr. Tara Smith (University of Iowa).

Clearly, the panel wasn’t composed of a bunch of slippery lobbyists pitching self-serving policy or smarmy marketers covertly promoting soy burgers; the presenters were all Very Serious Scientists who, collectively, have spent more than half a century studying the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance.  It was alarming therefore, that these experts stated unequivocally that the misuse of antibiotics by the livestock industry poses a significant threat to public health – and that the government has ignored (and continues to ignore) this threat despite consensus of the scientific community and the ever-growing body of peer-reviewed research that demonstrates the danger.

As underscored by the panelists, antibiotic resistance isn’t a new problem; scientists have been cautioning against misuse of antibiotics for decades.  Dr. Levy, for instance, has been sounding the alarm for more than 30 years (he founded Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics in 1981).  In fact, as Dr. Lawrence pointed out, Alexander Fleming, who received the Nobel Prize for discovering the antibiotic penicillin, included this cautionary statement in his Nobel lecture:

The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.

That was back in 1945.  So really, the risk of antibiotic-resistance isn’t a newly discovered or poorly understood phenomenon, it’s just a threat that the industrial livestock sector has chosen to ignore (though – as any parent whose child has recurring ear infections will tell you, family physicians take it quite seriously).

In keeping with its usual approach to public health issues, when it comes to antibiotics, Big Ag throws caution to the wind.  Instead of reserving these drugs for the treatment of sick animals, industrial livestock producers regularly administer subtherapeutic doses to healthy animals in order to promote growth (antibiotics make the animals grow slightly faster, which allows them to be raised in less time with less feed, thereby reducing costs for the producer), and to prevent disease (since factory farms confine so many animals in cramped, stressful, squalid conditions, disease spreads easily; antibiotics help mitigate the impact).

We're not talking about small quantities of antibiotics either; as the FDA acknowledged last year, 80% of all antimicrobials sold in the US are administered to farm animals – about 23 million pounds annually.  The results aren’t surprising; this misuse of antibiotics has induced the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  As Dr. Smith noted in her presentation, factory farms serve as giant Petri dishes, allowing antibiotic-resistant bacteria to easily spread among animals and workers (and back and forth between these populations).  Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are also found in animal manure, which, thanks to poor waste management practices, causes contamination of air, water and soil.

Since contaminated water and manure can be spread on crops, and since industrial slaughterhouses are notoriously ineffectual when it comes to keeping feces off of meat, antibiotic-resistant bacteria end up in our food supply as well.  A CSPI white paper released in conjunction with the briefing identified three major outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant foodborne illness in 2011, which caused 167 illnesses, 47 hospitalizations and one death (note that these figures reflect only reported cases in which bacteria were tested for resistance).

It’s important to understand though, that the misuse of antibiotics by industrial livestock producers affects our entire society – not only those who eat meat or fail to thoroughly wash their vegetables (vegetarians, take heed – we're talking to you, too).  Once antibiotic-resistant bacteria develop, they can spread, causing humans to develop illnesses that are more difficult and more expensive to treat.  In an increasingly frequent number of cases, these illnesses result in death.

It’s foolish and irresponsible to use antibiotics improperly, and it’s completely inexcusable to use these drugs in the reckless manner that has come to be standard procedure on factory farms.  Of course, when it comes to industrial livestock production, there’s never a dearth of public health or food safety concerns (pink slime, anyone?) – but somehow, the misuse of antibiotics is repeatedly overlooked.

Fortunately, scientists, health professionals and advocates continue to demand regulation.  And while most congressional representatives ignore the threat of antibiotic resistance, a few recognize its significance.  Representative Slaughter, for instance (who, incidentally, is the only microbiologist in Congress), tirelessly continues to introduce the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which would prohibit medically important antibiotics from being administered to farm animals for nontherapeutic purposes.

Before the panel presentation, Slaughter concluded her introductory remarks by declaring, “the media owes it to the world to put the spotlight on antibiotics.”  At Ecocentric, we couldn’t agree more – rest assured that until a responsible antibiotics policy is enacted, we'll keep typing about this issue with blue faces, numb fingers and sore carpals.

Learn more about antibiotics in agriculture on Sustainable Table, and stay informed about the issue by following these campaigns:

Citizens Against Superbugs

Keep Antibiotics Working

Pew Human Health and Industrial Farming Campaign