The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced its plans to withdraw a proposal that would limit the use of antibiotics in livestock raised for food, a policy that has been under consideration since 1977. The FDA will instead issue voluntary guidelines to the drug industry, which will not ban antibiotics that are considered unsafe, but will rely on the nation’s drug manufacturers to voluntarily withdraw a medicine from the market.
Scientists believe that the use of antibiotics in livestock has strengthened the human body’s resistance to antibiotics, as the body absorbs antibiotics found in meat. In many cases, treating animals with antibiotics isn’t necessary and is only used for therapeutic purposes, rather than to treat an animal that is ill. An estimated 70 to 80 percent of antibiotics used in the United States go toward treating healthy livestock for therapeutic reasons. The medicine is administered in low doses through the animals’ food and water, but it is the continued use of low dosage medication that allows resistance to the drugs to build up over time.
Experts believe that the widespread use of unnecessary antibiotics in livestock is contributing to a rising human resistance to antibiotics, making viral infections increasingly harder to treat. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) notes that exposure to one antibiotic can result in increased resistance to multiple other antibiotics, putting public health at risk when consumers ingest meat that has been treated with various antibiotics.
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D – N.Y.), who proposed the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act in 2007, noted that “Every year, 100,000 Americans die from bacterial infections acquired in the hospital. Seventy percent of these infections are resistant to drugs commonly used to treat them. I wonder how many lives could have been saved if these proposals were adopted in 1977 as they should have been. We need to get our head out of the sand and start taking public health advice from scientists rather than industry lobbyists.”
Slaughter’s legislation, which would ban the therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock treatment, states that bacterial infections resistant to antibiotics cost more than $20 billion in health care expenses annually.
In May 2011, the NRDC sued the FDA and demanded that the organization withdraw antibiotics using penicillin and tetracycline, two main components of antibiotics used to treat humans. The NRDC argued that the FDA concluded in 1977 that using these antibiotics in livestock could result in a human resistance to these medications, and that the agency should have acted on these conclusions and complied with laws stating that they withdraw these antibiotics from the livestock market.
Bacteria resistant to antibiotics can come into contact with humans through handling of livestock, through the environment, and through consuming and processing meat products. Examples of antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in meat include Staph and E. coli, which has been responsible for human illnesses and deaths in recent years. Humans who contract diseases from these strong bacteria require more medical treatment and therefore spend more money on health care and more time in hospitals fighting bacterial infections.
The cost of using these antibiotics on animals is low, and countries that have banned their use – like Denmark, which imposed a ban on livestock antibiotics in 1998 – have reported that discontinuing the medicine was inexpensive. The American National Academy of Sciences estimates the individual cost of banning livestock antibiotics at around $15 per year.
Experts are concerned that the FDA’s withdrawal of its long-standing proposal will have negative implications for public health, as the continued use of unnecessary antibiotics in livestock will likely result in an increased number of bacterial infections in humans, that stems from an increased resistance to antibiotics.
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