December 1, 2009

Just say NO to drugs in your meat: A plan to preserve antibiotics

Brent Kim

Brent Kim

Project Officer, Food Production & Public Health

Center for a Livable Future

The marvel of modern medicine is in jeopardy.  A growing pool of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, increasingly immune to our arsenal of prescription drugs, weighs heavily on our already-inflated health care budget.  Leading experts attribute much of the responsibility for this “Multi-Billion Dollar Health Care Crisis” to the practice of feeding low doses of antibiotics  to livestock in order to expediate growth.  Fortunately, Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY) has a plan that may serve as the first step towards solving this problem.


This Wednesday, Rep. Slaughter will join CLF Director Dr. Robert Lawrence and other leading experts for a Congressional briefing on nontherapeutic antimicrobial use in livestock.  The briefing follows her recent re-introduction of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA).  The bill is backed by a growing body of organizations who agree that the effectiveness of antibiotics in treating human disease is not worth compromising for the sake of a cheaper burger, pork loin or chicken breast.  The ban seems like good sense, given the American public ultimately ends up paying, in spades, for the higher cost of treating resistant infections – estimated at $6,000 to $10,000 more, per hospital visit, than treating a non-resistant infection.

Inherent in this crisis is an opportunity.  The livestock industry has an opportunity to work alongside government agencies and NGOs – and let’s not forget consumers, who ultimately decide which products succeed in the market – to reduce the public health risks from industrial farm animal production.  Here’s what needs to be done, according to the PEW Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production:

Phase out nontherapeutic antimicrobial use in livestock production, while offering livestock producers guidance on how to adopt safer practices.  They’ll be reassured to know that cutting antimicrobials from feed may actually cut production costs.  Further, our neighbors in Denmark demonstrated an effective transition to safe and profitable productionafter eliminating antimicrobials from feed; there’s no reason we couldn’t do the same.

Clarify antimicrobial definitions. Clear terminology is needed to prevent loopholes and allow for more enforceable regulations.  There needs to be a clear distinction, for example, between antimicrobial use for growth promotion (the suggest term for this is “nontherapeutic”) versus use for treating disease (the term is – you guessed it – “therapeutic”).

Improve monitoring and reporting of antimicrobial use in food animal production. The current quantity and methods of drug use are poorly reported by the industry, if at all.  Using the best available data at the time, the Union of Concern Scientists estimated that a staggering 70% of antimicrobial use in the U.S. is for agricultural purposes.

Increase veterinary oversight of antimicrobial use in food animal production. At present, livestock producers have virtually unrestricted access to prescription drugs, including many essential for treating human disease.

Improve monitoring and surveillance of antimicrobial-resistance in the food supply. Several organizations are currently attempting to do so, but their efforts are fragmented.  A coordinated plan, with independent oversight, should be set in place.  When resistant pathogens do arise, it is essential to trace them to their point of origin and prevent further infection.

Implementing these recommendations could alleviate some of the livestock industry’s burden on our health care system.  Rep. Slaughter’s initiative, with sufficient support, may bring some of this guidance to fruition.

– Brent Kim

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