FDA Retracts Proposal to Limit Antibiotics in Livestock

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. 

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/macieklew/2825061412

Doctors Speak Out Against Livestock Antibiotics

Retired cardiologist Jeff Ritterman estimates that close to eighty percent of the United States’ antibiotics are used on livestock.

Eighty percent.

“That part of the antibiotic resistance story is largely hidden for docs,” said Ritterman.

But now, a growing number of doctors have pegged the widespread use of antibiotics on livestock as a chief factor in the rising rate of drug-resistant bacteria strains that are complicating treatment of infections in humans.

Attempting to prevent disease from spreading in cramped conditions and encourage animal growth, factory farms load livestock with antibiotics, effectively turning the animals into living petri dishes. As the antibiotics eliminate populations of bacteria, they eliminate competition, allowing strains unaffected by the drugs to thrive.

Antibiotic-resistant strains have devastating effects for humans, as seen with methicillin-resistant Staphyloccocus aureus, commonly known as MRSA, which has eclipsed AIDS in number of deaths per year.

“It’s a helpless feeling when your patient dies of an infection that you can’t cure,” said Ritterman.

The sprawling scope of who’s affected by these “untouchable” strains only worsens the problem. Even those who forgo factory meat for locally raised goods—a sliver of the population, according to the Worldwatch Institute, whose 2006 figures estimate that 74 percent of the world’s poultry, 43 percent of beef, and 68 percent of eggs are produced in unsanitary, crowded conditions—can contract antibiotic-resistant infections through the air or water.

And that, of course, makes for a public health threat.

“I kept seeing more and more cases of antibiotic resistance at the hospital. It doesn’t make sense to keep doing it the way we’re doing it, not to mention that cases of resistance are costly,” said Diane Imrie, director of nutrition services at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vermont.

The trouble doesn’t stop there. Some critics suggest that to promote animal growth and get them ready for grocery stores faster, farms dole out low doses of antibiotics, levels that, to bacteria, are akin to immunization shots. In other words, whatever doesn’t kill the bacteria makes them stronger.

But while health professionals creep closer to a consensus against factory farm antibiotic use, the food-animal production industry vehemently disagrees.

“We don’t really think that the antibiotics given to animals in feed are big contributors to the problems in human medicine,” argued Richard Carnevale, vice president for regulatory, scientific, and international affairs at the Animal Health Institute, an organization that represents pharmaceutical companies.

“Antibiotics are used to keep animals as healthy as possible, and healthy animals are at the base of a safe food system,” he added, taking an economic swipe at critics by suggesting that removing antibiotics would “increase production costs.”

Opponents pooh-pooh that suggestion, noting that the European Union has banned the use of antibiotics to bulk up animals without any noticeable drop in its industry. The only rate that has dropped, according to a Danish study, is bacterial resistance. A United States study published in Environmental Health Perspectives last week suggest something similar, finding that eliminating antibiotics in livestock significantly reduced antibiotic resistance.

However, even with doctors throwing their support behind the anti-antibiotic movement, activists acknowledge that government still holds the key to change.

“A doctor may be able to help individuals in their [sic] office, but changes in policy can lift the health of an entire population. We need to really advance American medicine to the policy stage,” Ritterman said. “Doctors are trained to see the world through a health lens. Politicians, businessmen and economists are not.”

The Pew Campaign on Human Health & Industrial Farming has sponsored a petition urging President Obama and the US Food and Drug Administration to “protect the health of our children by keeping their commitments and taking action regarding antibiotic use on industrial farms.”

Sign the petition here to join the battle against livestock antibiotic use.

Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Cow_horned_portrait.jpg