There was an article in the NY Times yesterday titled "U.S. Meat Farmers Brace For Limits on Antibiotics." When I saw the article in the dining section, I was both excited and surprised. Excited, because I consider the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals, to be a very significant public threat that needs to be dealt with and surprised, because I follow this issue rather closely and wasn't aware of any new developments.
The problem with the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics is that it accelerates the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria. These resistant bacteria can cause bacterial infections that are very hard to treat, because they are not effected by many of the antibiotics that doctors currently have available. An infection with an antibiotic resistant bacteria can lengthen hospital stays, increase suffering, be very expensive, and even increase the risk of death.
The growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria is to some degree inevitable, but it is greatly accelerated by the indiscriminate or sub therapeutic use of antibiotics. By using antibiotics more judiciously, however, we can slow this development and extend the usefulness of these important medications, which take years and millions of dollars to develop. And thankfully the Public Health and physicians communities are keenly aware of this problem and have focused great amounts of energy on using antibiotics more carefully.
Unfortunately though, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists about 70% of the antibiotics used in the United States are not prescribed by physicians, but are used indiscriminately in healthy farm animals on factory farms. On these factory farms animals are kept in crowded conditions and antibiotics are added to animal feed in order to make them grow faster and prevent the illnesses that result from their poor living conditions.
Thankfully the FDA has recognized this problem and is moving to create a guidance document on the use of antibiotics in farm animals. Even better and stronger is a bill in congress created by Representative Louise Slaughter of NY called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which would limit the ability to use antibiotics used in humans for non-therapeutic uses in animals.
In the NY Times article it states that those opposed to regulation argue that antibiotic use in farm animals does not have a detrimental effect on public health. They quote a representative from the National Pork Producers Councils as saying “There is no conclusive scientific evidence that antibiotics used in food animals have a significant impact on the effectiveness of antibiotics in people.”
This is simply not true. While we can't blame all infections with antibiotic resistant bacteria in humans on farming practices, these practices certainly do lead to many infections and have the potential to cause many many more. Scientists have shown in countless studies that these feeding practices promote the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria. It has been shown that these dangerous bacteria can then be spread by many different mechanisms to humans, including to factory farm workers and then to their families and communities, on meat to consumers, through the air and water when large quantities of animal waster are disposed of, during transport of animals and even by the common housefly.
Opponents of the regulation also argue that any ban of antibiotic use in farm animals will lead to increased animal sickness, increased use of antibiotics, and increased cost of meat. The first argument holds true only if animals are kept under the same crowded conditions that they currently are on factory farms. Animals that are raised under more natural, free range conditions, on responsible sustainable farms do not get antibiotics and do not get sick often. In fact according to farmer's I know they get sick less often. And the data supports this. As the NY Times article indicates the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals was banned in the EU is 2006 and has been banned in Denmark since 1998. While these countries did see some initial increases in animal illness and antibiotic use, after minor changes in farming practices there has been a decrease in both coupled with an increase in productivity (see Aarestrup Letter 2009).
As for the cost of meat, as the EU experience and the NY Times article point out, this increase in cost to consumers is incredibly small. Meat in the US is currently artificially cheap, because the true cost of meat has been externalized to society in the costs of human illness and the lack of useful antibiotics for future generations. The large benefits to public health by a ban of the irresponsible non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals far outweighs any small increase in price at the supermarket. Unfortunately the headline of the NY times article probably isn't that accurate as the vast majority of meat producers in the US aren't preparing to change their practices anytime soon, but hopefully they will have to in the not so distant future.