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When the Feds Won’t Regulate Big Ag’s Antibiotic Abuse, Cities Call for Reform

San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., want the federal government to address the widespread use of the drugs in farm animals.
Sep 11, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In what appears to be a growing movement, San Francisco and Berkeley this week became the first cities in California to join a growing number of local governments pressing lawmakers in Washington to take action on the issue of antibiotic use in the ag industry. Across the country, cities are calling on Congress to pass legislation that would address the rise of drug-resistant “superbugs” that have been linked to the rampant use of antibiotics in livestock.

In April, the nonprofit activist group Food & Water Watch launched a nationwide campaign asking local governments to adopt resolutions supporting federal legislation to stop the unnecessary use of antibiotics in livestock. So far, 20 cities have heeded the organization’s call, including Chicago, Seattle, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.

The resolutions target two bills that are languishing in Congress: the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act in the House and the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act in the Senate. Both bills have been stuck in committee since being introduced more than a year ago. The odds of either passing anytime soon are seen as close to zilch. The site GovTrack.us gives the House bill a 1 percent chance of ever being enacted.

While this is not surprising, given the partisan paralysis of Washington, it is shocking when you consider that nearly every major medical organization has been sounding the alarm about the waning efficacy of lifesaving antibiotics and the spread of antibiotic-resistant bugs. These city governments are echoing calls from the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the Institute of Medicine/National Academies of Science, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which estimates that at least 23,000 Americans die from antibiotic-resistant infections each year.

Some 80 percent of the antibiotics consumed in America today are used by the agriculture industry, and much of that is given to healthy animals to enhance growth and counter the effects of living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions on factory farms. Of course, as anyone who has taken high school biology knows, over time some of the very bugs those antibiotics are meant to kill survive, then multiply, producing an infectious strain resistant to antibiotic treatment.

Hence what Food & Water Watch and other groups are billing as a campaign to “save antibiotics.” Though it lacks the emotional punch of “Save the whales” or “Save the polar bears,” it is nevertheless an apt characterization of the issue. We risk squandering the lifesaving power of these marvels of 20th century medicine just so Big Ag can raise fatter chickens and cows in the 21st century.

What makes the whole thing all the more galling is that the Food and Drug Administration has known this could happen since the late 1970s, yet it’s done virtually nothing to stop it. Advocacy groups have recently tried to force the agency to action through the courts, but a recent appeals court ruling siding with the FDA has put the kibosh on that for the moment.

Right now there are two main paths forward: Get Congress to pass a law requiring the FDA to limit the use of antibiotics in the livestock industry, or convince the industry to take voluntary action.

Although the announcement by poultry giant Perdue earlier this month that the company had achieved a 95 percent reduction in the use of human antibiotics in its operations might lead one to believe there’s some hope in the latter route, public health advocates are more than a little dubious.

“A Perdue spokesperson stated that the company’s voluntary reduction in the use of antibiotics shows that the industry doesn’t need to be regulated to change its ways. If only that were true,” writes Scott Edwards, codirector of the Food & Water Justice Project at Food & Water Watch. “One of the big problems with industry’s use of antibiotics is that the FDA does a poor job of tracking the use of these drugs in U.S. meat producers. There are very weak reporting requirements, and industry’s admissions of antibiotic use are purposefully murky and undefined. Even Perdue’s official statement leaves it unclear how antibiotics will continue to be used to ‘treat and control illness in sick flocks.’ ”

Edwards continues: “[V]oluntary simply doesn’t cut it; antibiotic abuse by industry is a current crisis and our public health and safety cannot afford to wait until there’s an industry-wide decision to do the right thing. So while we should be throwing Perdue a chicken bone for its marketing decision to reduce antibiotic use, the most important part of Perdue’s announcement is that it shows what the industry has been claiming for years—that it can’t produce meat without the abuse of antibiotics—is false. It’s past time for the FDA to do what we all know is possible, and that is to force the meat industry to eliminate its use of harmful antibiotics though protective, non-voluntary regulation.”