The Overuse of Antibiotics in Lifestock Feed Is Killing Us
Over 70,000 Americans die each year because of antibiotic resistance, thanks to the overuse of antibiotics in medical treatments, factory farming and soaps.
January 26, 2010 |
The 2000s were go-go years for antibiotic resistance. Thanks to the overprescription of antibiotics in medical settings and the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in concentrated animal feeding
operations (or CAFOs), we've aided the emergence of 'superbugs' -- or drug
resistance microorganisms. Antibiotic resistance (AR) has led to the deaths of
70,000 Americans a year.
You'd think this would elicit some immediate
action to prevent this public health nightmare from growing. But in 2007 when
the (now) late Sen. Edward Kennedy introduced legislation to discourage the
overuse of the antibiotics responsible for AR, it gained no traction. The
reason? Kennedy stepped directly on the toes of two of the country's most
powerful lobbying interests -- Big Ag and Big Pharma.
seems, cannot keep up its unsustainable feedlot system of raising thousands of
animals in confinement, with poor sanitation and unhealthy diets, if it the
animals weren't being pumped full of copious amounts of antibiotics.
seems scarcely believable that these precious medications could be fed by the
ton to chickens and pigs," said the bill's background text. "These precious
drugs aren't even used to treat sick animals. They are used to fatten pigs and
speed the growth of chickens. The result of this rampant overuse is clear: meat
contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria sits on supermarket shelves all over
Worse, when the FDA issued a directive in 2008 to ban
non-therapeutic use of cephalosporin antibiotics in livestock (drugs also used
in humans) to curtail resistance, irate lobbyists stormed Capitol Hill and the
Bush administration backed down.
Now, with a new administration and
Congress, Kennedy's bill has a House version, support from 300 organizations
including the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association,
American Academy of Pediatrics and American College of Preventive Medicine—and a
good chance of passage.
of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) sponsored in the House by
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-NY (who has degrees in both microbiology and public
health) would phase out non-therapeutic use of "medically important antibiotics"
in livestock and strengthen standards for approval of new livestock antibiotics
while still allowing their use in sick animals. Eighty-four percent of
grower-finisher swine farms, 83 percent of cattle feedlots and 84 percent of
sheep farms currently use antibiotics non-therapeutically, according to the
bill. Seventy percent of antibiotics are fed to livestock, not humans, in the
Nor is use in livestock the only resistance culprit. Antibiotics are
also abused by hospitals, clinics and doctors to prevent infection and to
"treat" viruses when patients, especially parents of young children, want the
psychological reassurance of a pill. Even antibiotic hand sanitizers and laundry
detergents contribute to resistance, as do natural antibiotic treatments like
tea tree oil. In fact AR might be the ultimate biological demonstration of the
principle, "That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
banned human-use antibiotics in livestock in 1998 and all non-therapeutic use of
antibiotics in livestock in 2006, making it a test kitchen for AR reduction,
particularly in Denmark, the world's largest pork exporter. In Denmark,
antibiotic use is down 51 percent and bacteria and AR bacteria are also down,
says the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, with no increase
in the cost of meat. Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands have also reported AR
reductions as has Australia.
Reductions of antibiotic use are also
underway in European hospitals. In Norway, testing and isolating patients with
MRSA (methicillin resistant S. aureus, considered the granddaddy of resistant
microbes) and prescribing fewer antibiotics has brought down the AR rate, according
to an in-depth AP report in January.
On the surface, a bill
addressing AR that could return us to pre-antibiotic medicine circa 1908 looks
like a no-brainer. That's why the Animal Health Institute (AHI) and newly merged
Pfizer/Wyeth (Fort Dodge) and Merck/Schering-Plough (Intervet) animal drug
giants are lobbying hard against it. In fact, Rep. Slaughter's PAMTA may be the
only bill that pits veterinarians against doctors.
Of course, Big Ag is
fighting back. Agribusiness insists that antibiotics aren't causing AR and even
if they are, we're not using human drugs, and even if we are using human drugs,
we're cutting down on them. and even if we're not cutting down on them, the
drugs are FDA-approved and undergo vigorous risk assessment. This parody of
defenses includes everything but denying the use of antibiotics in the first
Actually, Big Ag's use of antibiotics increased 13 percent from
2006 to 2007 according to the AHI, to offset "high grain prices" and "capture
both the economic efficiencies and the health benefits derived from the use of
these products," the agribusiness weekly Feedstuffs reported in
November 2008. Those "efficiencies" included feeding 10 million pounds of
tetracycline—a broad-spectrum human antibiotic used for pneumonia, eye, ear and
urinary tract infections, and gonorrhea—to livestock in one year.
addition to worrying about Rep. Slaughter, agribusiness worries about the public
health bent FDA is taking under its new directors, Commissioner Margaret A.
Hamburg, MD, a former New York City health commissioner and Deputy Commissioner
Joshua Sharfstein, MD, the number two officer and a former food safety staffer
for Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA. Especially since Sharfstein announced FDA's support
of PAMTA at a House Rules Committee on the legislation in June, without even
"You deliberately tried to blindside some of us on
this committee, and we don't appreciate that," said Rep. Leonard Boswell,
D-IOWA, to the FDA's new senior adviser on food safety, Michael Taylor after
determining that Sharfstein's remarks had White House Office of Management and
Budget seal of approval. Boswell, who was chairman of the House agriculture
subcommittee on livestock last year, was the only pro-antibiotic voice at the
PAMTA rules hearings.
Antibiotics are popular with CAFOs and lucrative
for agribusiness for two simple reasons: less space and less
Raising turkeys without antibiotics "would result in a decrease in
density or an increase in the amount of land needed to raise the additional
turkeys needed to meet the consumer demand," said National Turkey Federation's
Michael Rybolt at the 2008 cephalosporin hearings, admitting antibiotics enable
crowding. It would create greater feed needs, "an increase in manure" and tie up
more land for crop production, said Rybolt.
While antibiotics do squeeze
more nutrients out of feed by killing gut bacteria and causing "growth" say
scientists, a Johns Hopkins University study in Public Health Reports
in 2007 found their cost canceled out profits for chicken
Evidence of AR infections—urinary tract, intestinal, upper and
lower respiratory, ear, skin, and even TB and STDs—is not hard to find in
hospitals and communities. In fact, MRSA was reported plentiful on Florida
swimming beaches at the American Association for the Advancement of Science
annual meeting in 2009.
Antibiotic-resistant microbes are also found in
ground water, soil, and in crops and workers near manure lagoons and industrial
farms and are in many of the foods we eat. Consumer Reports found over
60 percent of microbes detected in chickens from 22 states were resistant and an
FDA inspection found cephalosporin—the antibiotic it tried to ban in
2008—directly injected into eggs at a U.S. hatchery. Bon appetit!
don't look for many new antibiotics in the pharmaceutical pipeline. There's less
money in developing drugs taken for 10 days (unless you're an animal) than in
heart, arthritis, diabetes and psychoactive meds taken for life. And recent
antibiotic development disasters like Ketek (black-boxed for hepatotoxicity),
Trovan (severely restricted for hepatotoxicity) and Zyvox (part of the biggest
fraud settlement in U.S. history), don't raise hopes.
Of course there are
other ways to attack bacteria. Scientists are looking at algeliferin, isolated
from sponge, which can break down bacteria's biofilm barrier, and radiation,
ultrasound, chlorine dioxide and ammonia are already in use. (The New York
Times reported last month that ammonia gas treatment was shown to produce
E. coli-laced "pink slime" in meats used for the school lunch
But scientists are also looking at seraticin, an antibiotic
from green bottle fly maggots and bacteriophages, intracellular parasites that
multiply inside bacteria like viruses—century-old therapies used before
antibiotics were even invented.
Few miss the irony that in using
antibiotics when they aren't necessary, we lose the ability to use them when