Warnings from federal officials on the threats posed by antibiotic resistant germs simply do not get clearer: Antibiotic resistant bacteria is killing at least 23,000 Americans a year, and it's time to get serious about limiting their use in people and animals.
“If we don’t act now, our medicine cabinet will be empty and we won’t have the antibiotics we need to save lives,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For the first time Monday, the agency put a hard number on death and illnesses associated with antibiotic resistant bacteria, saying 2 million Americans get infections that are resistant to antibiotics each year, according to their new 114-page report.
The CDC admits the number is conservative.
“Every time antibiotics are used in any setting, bacteria evolve by developing resistance. This process can happen with alarming speed,” said Dr. Steve Solomon, director of CDC’s Office of Antimicrobial Resistance.
Most antibiotic resistant infections happened in healthcare settings that included hospitals and nursing homes. But the report also singles out the use of antibiotics in industrial farming – a problem we’ve covered here regularly before.
“Up to half of antibiotic use in humans and much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe. Stopping even some of the inappropriate and unnecessary use of antibiotics in people and animals would help greatly in slowing down the spread of resistant bacteria,” the report says.
That recommendation echoes the April 2012 U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s report on antibiotic use in industrial farming, where the agency called for voluntary changes to phase out medically important antibiotics.
Yet, as recently as February, the FDA reported that nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics were still being used in American beef, pork and poultry production.
The result of that kind of antibiotic use?
Researchers found that 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.
When it comes to meat production, no one is suggesting that sick animals should not be treated with antibiotics. The concern over antibiotic use in farming stems from producers who use a steady stream of low-dose antibiotics to keep livestock in crowded conditions (often in CAFOs) from getting sick and to speed their growth rates.
Animals who receive antibiotics develop resistant bacteria in their guts, according to the CDC.
Bacteria that travels on meat can spread to humans when food isn’t properly handled or cooked. It can also spread through fertilizer or water that contains feces from those animals, and can remain on crops that come in contact with it. (Just today, JAMA released a new report linking pig manure fertilizer to MRSA in humans.)
It is a concern the FDA has been aware of since the 1970s.
“This is not a new problem. When the FDA first put this issue out there, Elvis was still in the building,” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union.
The new CDC report, she says, is critically important.
“Their view is this problem could get rapidly much worse unless we take action,” she says.
For consumers, she says, that means demanding beef, pork and poultry that was raised without the use of antibiotics. But labels can be confusing. “No Antibiotics Administered” and “Raised Without Antibiotics” may be used on meat and poultry labels and does, in fact mean the animal was not given antibiotics during it’s lifetime. “Antiboitic Free”, however, is not approved by the USDA and should not be used on meat products.
“This isn’t just consumer preference. This is a public health issue,” says Halloran. “We’re asking that consumers contact their local supermarkets and demand that they only carry meat raised without the use of antibiotics.”
In a written statement, James H. Hodges of the American Meat Institute says, "The report expressed concern about the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in animal production and we understand that concern. In our view, antibiotics should continue to be made available for animal health care under the direction of veterinarians, but we agree that antibiotics for production purposes should be phased out and that initiative is already underway."
Dawn Undurraga, a consulting nutritionist with the Environmental Working Group says it’s clear the FDA has a dismal record of inaction on the issue of antibiotic use in food-producing animals.
“This is very concerning for consumers. They need to be aware that back rooms people aren’t making the right decisions,” she says. “Consumers can make a difference here. We need to increase demand for meat raised without antibiotics.”