The use and misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is a hot topic. Only earlier this month, the UK Government’s Chief Medical Officer weighed into the debate and said that the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria risks a global health catastrophe that ranks alongside the threat of climate change or terrorism. It’s serious stuff.
In the U.S., we pride ourselves on being the best of the best. And in this Olympic year we’re all hoping that we’ll come home with the Gold. However, there is one area where the U.S. leads which should deeply concern us all. Figures initially presented by Dr. Danilo Lo Fo Wong of the World Health Organization reveal that the U.S. is leading the world in the overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming – and by a long way. We use more antibiotics per kilogram of meat produced than any other nation in the world – and we use 12 times as much as the country using the least, Norway. In doing so we are jeopardizing our future ability to treat killer diseases, all for the sake of so-called “cheap” animal protein and short-term industry profit. In this case, by coming in first, we may actually be in danger of losing it all. Just last week Professor Lance Price from the TGen Centre for Microbiomics and Human Health in Arizona spoke in London, the site of this years’ Olympic Games, to highlight not American excellence, but American failings, saying that U.S. lawmakers were "significantly further behind Europe" after the European Union banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in 2006.
When it comes to public relations there is spin and there is downright deceit. A recent press release from the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) on the potential link between antibiotic resistant bacteria and industrialized farming definitely falls into the latter category. At issue here is a statement released by National Pork Producers Council President Doug Wolf on the new Government Accountability Office report, "Antibiotic Resistance: Agencies Have Made Limited Progress Addressing Antibiotic Use in Animals." Wolf says, “Not only is there no scientific study linking antibiotic use in food animals to antibiotic resistance in humans, as the U.S. pork industry has continually pointed out, but there isn’t even adequate data to conduct a study.” He continues, “The GAO report on antibiotic resistance issued today confirms this." Wolf’s comments are hogwash and he knows it. The truth is that the GAO report does nothing of the sort, nor was that ever its intention. Even from the report title it’s already pretty clear what the overall conclusion is: key government agencies – namely the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA) which are primarily responsible for ensuring food safety in the U.S. – are not doing enough to combat the growing threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria to public health.
When it comes to food and farming, unfortunately it often takes a major public health scare to bring about necessary changes in policy and practice. Unless you have been on another planet you will have no doubt heard the news of the horrific food poisoning outbreak in Europe which has killed 24 people and left almost 2,500 sick. At the time of writing the exact source of this E. coli outbreak is still not known, although almost all cases have occurred in Germany or were directly linked to travel there. But while the primary focus remains identifying the source of the outbreak and treating those affected, scientists have already expressed alarm at the fact that this particular strain of E. coli – E. coli O104:H4 – is resistant to several classes of important antibiotics. And the consensus is that one of the most likely reasons for the development of this multiple-resistant strain is the misuse of antibiotics in intensive livestock farming systems.
Many people are unaware that 80% of all antimicrobial drugs are administered to animals. Unfortunately, this fact shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; the Union of Concerned Scientists provided the same stat ten years ago in the 2001 report, Hogging It: Estimates of Antimicrobial Use in Livestock. Of course, industry has since ignored and/or rejected this figure every chance they’ve had. But despite the best efforts of Agribiz, as this week’s press release from Congresswoman Louise Slaughter reports, the FDA has officially confirmed the 80% figure; check it out. I should note that our friend Ralph Loglisci of the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future contacted the FDA back in December and was given the same numbers (he wrote an excellent post about this, which is absolutely worth reading). Nonetheless, it seems significant that the antibiotics stats have been released to and publicized by a congressperson. Very official, we think – and hopefully capable of capturing the nation’s attention.
On May 4 Animal Welfare Approved hosted an expert panel of writers, farmers and representatives of sustainable livestock production. Entitled, “Green Pastures, Bright Future: Taking the Meat We Eat Out of the Factory and Putting it Back on the Farm," the discussion centered on the need for truly sustainable livestock farming that takes into account animal welfare and the health of our environment - and ourselves. Panelists included investigative journalist and author of Animal Factory David Kirby; author of the bestselling Righteous Porkchop Nicolette Hahn Niman; chicken farmer and whistle-blower in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Food, Inc.” Carole Morison; and rancher, veterinarian and president of the American Grassfed Association, Dr. Patricia Whisnant.
RESPONSE TO KATIE COURIC'S RECENT CBS NEWS STORIES Scientists have known for many years that bacteria can mutate to become resistant to antibiotics or pick up genetic material from other bacteria that have survived the antibiotic use, and then further spread this within the bacterial population. And this is exactly what has been happening on intensive farms across the U.S. over the last few decades. Part of the problem with this overuse of low-dose antibiotics is the fact that while the low dose kills off the more susceptible bacteria first, it leaves behind those bacteria that aren’t susceptible – in other words, the ones that show resistance. And because the farmers generally use the same antibiotics over and over again, in the end the only bacteria left are those that are resistant. Without anything to control them, these resistant bacteria can multiply and easily spread from animal to animal, and then from farm to farm.