World Leaders May Do Something About the Worsening Superbug Problem
Are governments around the world getting serious about tackling antibiotic abuse in the livestock industry, or are we going to allow countless people to die in the name of cheap meat?
It’s a question that only sounds dramatic if you haven’t been following the terrifying rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs that’s been tied to the rampant overuse of antibiotics on factory farms.
As if on cue, just as world leaders were convening at the United Nations General Assembly this week to discuss the issue, researchers announced they had discovered a superbug in Denmark linked to poultry. It’s a strain of MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant type of staph bacteria more commonly associated with hospitals.
While MRSA infections have been on the rise, food-borne transmission has been rare and continues to be. Yet the researchers note it’s alarming that the new strain appears to have been transmitted from infected birds not to poultry workers but to consumers through either the handling or the consumption of infected meat.
As one of the study’s authors said in a statement, “Our findings implicate poultry meat as a source for these infections. At present, meat products represent only a minor transmission route for MRSA to humans, but our findings nevertheless underscore the importance of reducing the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals as well as continuing surveillance of the animal-food-human interface.”
It’s a warning that scientists and leading medical organizations around the world have been sounding for years—and until now, it seems it has largely fallen on deaf ears. In the U.S., for example, the overwhelming majority of antibiotics—70 percent or more—continue to be given to livestock. Not to treat animals that are sick, mind you, but to prevent illness, often on overcrowded factory farms.
But at a U.N. summit on Wednesday, more than 190 member nations signed a landmark declaration promising to do something about the burgeoning crisis of antibiotic resistance. It’s only the fourth time in the U.N.’s 70-year history that the General Assembly has taken up a health-related issue, following summits on HIV, Ebola, and noncommunicable diseases such as obesity.
“I think the declaration will have very strong implications,” Dr. Keiji Fukuda of the World Health Organization told NPR. “What it will convey is that there’s recognition that we have a big problem and there’s a commitment to do something about it.”
NPR reported that a similar resolution concerning HIV that the U.N. passed in 2001 is generally credited with spurring action to combat the pandemic, bringing attention and a wave of money devoted to treatment and prevention. Countries targeted with such aid have seen AIDS-related deaths drop by 45 percent since 2004.
There’s reason to be skeptical about the U.N. declaration on antibiotic resistance. For starters, it’s nonbinding, and it doesn’t set any firm targets for countries to reduce the use of antibiotics.
That sort of toothless posturing should sound familiar. After all, an “action plan” unveiled by the White House last year to combat antibiotic resistance in the U.S. set targets for cutting the amount of antibiotics prescribed by doctors to people—but it failed to do the same for the agriculture industry, which continues to dose chickens, cows, and pigs with the same drugs. The Food and Drug Administration has called on the industry to stop feeding animals antibiotics on a regular basis to promote growth, but the agency continues to allow the drugs to be given as a “preventative measure”—more or less allowing factory farms to keep doing what they’ve long done. Only one state, California, has passed a law restricting antibiotic use on farms.
In short, when it comes to protecting the efficacy of some of the most important lifesaving drugs known to humankind, the U.S. is forced to rely on an ad hoc collection of environmental and public health groups to do what regulators won’t. Naming and shaming has helped push America’s biggest restaurant chains into eliminating antibiotics from their supply chains. The hope is that by convincing huge buyers like McDonald’s and Subway to go antibiotic-free, the entire livestock industry will be forced to change.
How’s that going? In a report issued earlier this week, just two chains—Panera Bread and Chipotle—got an A for taking meaningful action to reduce antibiotics in the poultry, beef, and pork they sell. The majority of restaurant chains got an F.