America’s Unwitting Prescription Drug Addicts: Livestock

Farm animals are continually medicated with low doses of antibiotics, and that’s making dangerous bacteria like salmonella increasingly drug-resistant.

The agriculture industry's purchasing of antibiotics like penicillin rose in 2011. (Photo: Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

American beef, pork and poultry producers purchased nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics in 2011, including penicillins, tetracyclines and cephalosporins, which are used primarily in intensive meat production. That’s nearly four times the amount sold to humans who were sick, and it’s an increase of 2.3 percent over the previous year—despite increasing public pressure to scale back on routine antibiotic use.

A report released yesterday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration showed millions of pounds of antibiotics are still being sold to livestock producers who use them to promote quick growth and as a preventative measure to keep intensively raised flocks and herds healthy. That practice has long been linked to growing (and worrisome) antibiotic resistance.

The issue of resistant bacteria was the focus of a second report released by the agency yesterday. The National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) Retail Meat Report identified an increase in antibiotic resistance on retail meat. Some highlights? Campylobacter, an infectious digestive disease, was found on 95 percent of chicken products tested, and of those, nearly half were resistant to tetracycline. The salmonella found on nearly half of the ground turkey and chicken tested was resistant to more than three antimicrobial classes. Almost half of the E. coli found on tested meat samples was found to be antibiotic-resistant.  

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY), the author of the Preservation of Antibiotic for Medical Treatment Act, says the latest information released by the FDA is downright alarming.

“We are standing on the brink of a public health catastrophe,” she says in a statement. “The threat of antibiotic resistant disease is real, it is growing and those most at risk are our seniors and children.”

Gail Hansen, senior officer for the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, tells TakePart the problem is serious.

“For ground turkey, they found 10 different strains of salmonella, resistant to six or more antibiotic classes. We don’t have hundreds of antibiotic classes to choose from. If you get salmonella and your doctor wants to give you an antibiotic, they’re going to have to be careful in what they choose,” she says.

While the FDA did issue guidance rules in April 2011, which suggested scaling back the use of medically important antibiotics used in food production, those guidelines are voluntary and have not yet been finalized. That means producers are still routinely feeding their livestock low doses of antibiotics through their feed—almost all of which are available over-the-counter at feed stores.

Ron Phillips, spokesman for Animal Health Institute, a trade organization for veterinary pharmaceuticals, tells us that both of the new FDA reports need to be put into context.

“It’s sales data, not use data,” he says. “There are many factors here. The gross tonnage of use is not, and underline not, an indication of any sort of public health threat. In fact, the careful, judicious and necessary use of antibiotics is important in producing safe meat products,” he says.

As for the NARMS report, he notes that the retail-meat report is just one of three reports to be issued, and that information on antibiotic resistance in humans and animals is still forthcoming.

Avinash Kar, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says there are many reasons to be concerned about the new FDA data.

“Antibiotic resistance is a real public health problem. It’s one of CDC’s top concerns. The World Health Organization has said it is a major concern. Nearly 80 percent of all antibiotics are sold for livestock use in the United States. Is human use part of the problem? Yes. Absolutely. But the overwhelming use is in livestock, and we need to address that.”

Last year the NRDC took the FDA to court, saying the agency knew as far back as 1977 that antibiotic use in livestock created a risk of resistance but did not act; nor did the agency act on citizen group petitions asking for action in 1999 and 2005.

“A federal court directed the FDA to stop the use of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed unless drug manufacturers can prove in a hearing that such use is safe for human health. The court also directed FDA to examine the science and evaluate the safety of other medically important antibiotics,” Kar writes on the NRDC site. “FDA’s response has been to propose ‘voluntary’ non-binding recommendations that the industry can choose to ignore. Unfortunately, FDA has also appealed the decisions.”

Oral arguments in the case are scheduled to take place tomorrow in New York.

Similar stories on TakePart:

• Antibiotics Creating "Bacterial Monsters"

• Antibiotics in Farm Animals on the Rise

• Is a Common Kitchen Herb the Key to Healthy, Antibiotic-Free Chickens?

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