October 23, 2013

Drug-resistant infections kill thousands

A new study links human deaths to the use of antibiotics in livestock, but Congress has failed to act.

By Melinda Henneberger
The Washington Post

The farm and pharmaceutical lobbies have blocked all meaningful efforts to reduce the use of antibiotics in raising livestock in the United States, a practice that contributes to an increasingly urgent public health risk, a study released Tuesday found.

click image to enlarge

A caged hen feeds at an egg farm. The broad use of antibiotics to control and prevent disease in cows, pigs and chickens is believed to play a role in the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.


Congress has killed every effort to restrict the feeding of farm animals the same antibiotics used in human medicine, the study says, even as antibiotics have grown less effective in treating infection. And regulation has gotten weaker under the Obama administration.

“Our worst fears were confirmed,” said Bob Martin, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which issued the report. The Food and Drug Administration’s statistics, he said, show that as much as 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in this country are fed to food animals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report last month that found that 23,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections each year. The more a particular germ is exposed to antibiotics, the more rapidly it can develop resistance. Most scientists agree that overprescribing the drugs to humans is the predominant cause for bacteria evolving to outsmart them, but feeding the drugs widely to control and prevent disease in cows, pigs and chickens also is believed to play a role.


Tuesday’s study, “Industrial Food Animal Production in America,” comes five years after a landmark report on industry practices by a Pew Charitable Trusts commission of scientists working through the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Feeding animals antibiotics for breakfast, lunch and dinner plumps them up at a terrible cost, the 2008 report said, making drugs ever-less effective and bacteria more resistant.

FDA guidelines in the pipeline, Martin said, would require the industry to stop using antibiotics specifically to bulk up food animals but would continue to allow their use for disease control. But what constitutes disease control is so loosely defined, Martin said, that there would be no practical change in the use of antibiotics.

“In a couple of areas, the Obama administration started off with good intentions. But when industry pushed back, even weaker rules were issued,” he said. “We saw undue influence everywhere we turned.”

The report was authored by a commission that included ranchers, experts in public health and veterinary medicine, and former U.S. agriculture secretary Dan Glickman. Former Kansas governor John Carlin chaired the panel.

A spokeswoman for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, Emily Meredith, said producers “tend to disagree with much of what is said in the report,” have made significant progress over the past decade and have for years been using antibiotics judiciously.

The Alliance, a coalition of food producers, released its own report on industry practices on Monday, which defends modern farming techniques as necessary and ethical to feed a growing global population.

“Food safety in this country is the best it has ever been,” wrote Richard Raymond, a former agriculture undersecretary for food safety and inspections, in the report’s foreword.

Antibiotics are part of set of biologic tools, like beta-antagonists, that have enabled producers to raise livestock in ways that are environmentally conscious and more humane, according to the report. “The vast majority” of antibiotics approved by the FDA for use in poultry and egg production are not used in human medicine “and therefore have little to no effect on the contribution to antibiotic resistance in humans,” said the report.


The FDA’s plan to address the issue “is to phase out the use of medically important antibiotics in food animals for growth promotion and feed efficiency,” said Shelly Burgess, an agency spokeswoman, via email. “FDA believes these drugs should be used only in situations where they are necessary for treating, controlling, or preventing a specifically identified disease, and only under the oversight of a veterinarian.”

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