UPDATE: Superbug Meat: Factory Farms Weaken Antibiotics
UPDATE: The FDA announced last week that it is “proposing a voluntary initiative” to end the use of antibiotics to speed the growth of animals raised for meat, while permitting the use of the medications to treat disease under a veterinarian’s supervision.
The new initiative, being voluntary, is toothless. The Center for Science in the Public Interest called it “tragically flawed” because it relies “too heavily on the drug industry and animal producers to act voluntarily in the best interest of consumers.”
The FDA practically boasted in its press release that it had worked “to ensure that the voices of livestock producers across the country were taken into account.” Given that livestock producers have dictated the government’s non-action on this issue for three decades, that is no surprise.
The government’s refusal to protect the public health in deference to agribusiness interests is deplorable. As CSPI said, “The time for half-measures and voluntary steps has passed.” Our health is far more important than some extra profit for factory farming conglomerates. If only we could convince our government of that.
We’ve all heard about the antibiotic crisis: overuse has led to bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, opening the door to superbugs for which we have no cure. Those superbugs cause infections that are fatal in 30-60 percent of cases.
What we haven’t heard as much about is that the biggest abuser of antibiotics isn’t human patients and their doctors: it is factory farms, which are responsible for 80 percent of antibiotic use. They spike livestock feed with the medications to make “meat animals” grow faster. Seven million pounds of antibiotics are sold for human use every year, while 28.8 million pounds go into cows, pigs, turkeys, sheep and chickens.
Thanks to a judge in a New York federal court, the government is one small step closer to ending this lunacy. In a case called Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. vs. U.S. Food & Drug Administration, Magistrate Judge Theodore Katz ordered the FDA to reintroduce a draft rule it first proposed 35 years ago but never acted on.
The rule would require that “an antibacterial drug fed…to animals must be shown not to promote increased resistance to antibacterials used in human medicine.” The rule would not prohibit giving animals medication to treat disease. The Court’s ruling would obligate the FDA only to give the public (i.e. agribusiness) a chance to contribute its two cents (i.e. big fat political donations) on whether the proposed rule should be adopted. Legally, the Court can’t make the administration adopt the rule.
Contrast this meandering, tortoise-speed progress with the magnitude of the problem: the FDA itself told the Court that antibiotic resistance is “a mounting public health problem of global significance” and that dosing livestock with antibiotics “for production purposes…is not in the interest of protecting and promoting the public health.” The government has identified a health problem of global significance that kills 30-60 percent of its human victims, and proceeded to sit on its hands for 35 years.
It’s not that there is any doubt that factory farms’ use of antibiotics is directly causing the rise of superbugs. The science is clear that feeding animals antibiotics just to make them grow larger faster threatens human health. In 1997, for example, the World Health Organization recommended that feeding animals antibiotics for growth should be banned if the same antibiotics are used to treat humans.
In 2010, the FDA reviewed this and other studies and concluded, as it had back in the ’70s, that factory farms shouldn’t feed antibiotics to animals. And just like in the ’70s, the FDA once again didn’t do a thing about it.
Agribusiness has tried to head off government intervention with a charade that it is unilaterally slashing its use of antibiotics. For instance, as Reuters reports, “the poultry industry [says] it already has ratcheted down ‘by a large margin’ its use of antibiotics.”
But agribusiness has been on notice since 1977 that the government disapproved of its massive overconsumption of antibiotics and didn’t try to fix the problem on its own until now. It is awfully convenient that it claims it can self-regulate just when a federal lawsuit threatens to impose government regulation on the industry.
The same Reuters article reports that the “director of FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, noted voluntary efforts to reduce antibiotic use and said, ‘We believe additional steps are necessary to have a real impact on this problem.’” In other words, agribusiness is not and will not do enough to solve the problem on its own. The government must step in.
Why it has been necessary to sue the FDA to make them do what they already know they should do is a mystery. This lawsuit is not the first effort to roust the administration to action. In 2009 and subsequent years, as reported by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “hundreds of…health, consumer, environmental, agricultural, and humane organizations” supported a bill in Congress to address the problem. It didn’t pass.
Doctors are on the front lines of the battle against antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and they have taken sides in the struggle to get antibiotics out of factory farm feed. Three antibiotics doctors commonly prescribe, penicillin and two forms of tetracycline, are at issue in the lawsuit. The American Medical Association endorsed the bill to reduce the amount of these medications fed to animals raised for meat.
The AMA’s newspaper quoted Dr. Brad Spellberg, associate professor of medicine at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, California, as saying, “I’ve seen patients die of treatable infections. I’ve told their family, ‘I have no medicine to use.’ This is a catastrophic public health crisis. I don’t know how else to put it.”
Please sign the petition to the Obama administration calling for an end to agribusiness’s abuse of antibiotics.
Photo Credit: tractorboy60