March 16, 2009

Antibiotic Use in Industrial Food Animal Production Gaining Notice

Center for a Livable Future

Center for a Livable Future

Two op-ed articles were published in The New York Times this past week by Nicholas Kristof in regards to the misuse of antibiotics in animal feed. Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health was in the NYT on Wednesday (3/11) and Pathogens in Our Pork appeared in Saturday’s (3/14) edition. It is encouraging to see such an often overlooked public health issue being brought to the attention of the millions of NYT readers.

Mr. Kristof brings up the point that any medical doctor can tell you: when you overuse and misuse antibiotics, resistance inevitably follows. With 70 percent of all antibiotic use in the United States going into animal feed (at sub-therapeutic levels), a pathway to antibiotic resistant bacteria is clear. And now for the really scary part, “These dangerous pathogens [antibiotic resistant bacteria] are now even in our food supply.”

Two studies done in the last year found MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) in retail pork destined for human consumption. One study in Louisiana found MRSA in five out of ninety pork samples and the other found MRSA in one out of three hundred retail meat samples in Washington DC. MRSA was found in meat on the shelves of retail outlets where consumers purchase their food. As Kristof notes, this is a disturbing find: “Regardless of whether the bacteria came from the pigs or from humans who handled the meat, the results should sound an alarm bell, for MRSA already kills more than 18,000 Americans annually, more than AIDS does.” He goes on to say that even if people cook their meat thoroughly there is still potential cross contamination exposure to a deadly pathogen.

The misuse of antibiotics in food animal production is potentially degrading one of the greatest scientific and medical products of our time, and according to Kristof, “That’s an almost universal view in the public health world.” So while the public health community is adamant about stopping this activity, the politicians have not come on board. Kristof says this is mainly because of the political clout agribusiness has in Washington, “Legislation to ban the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture has always been blocked by agribusiness interests.”

Mr. Kristof ends his article with a bit of optimism and a sentiment shared by many about the direction the Obama administration may be heading. “Traditionally, the Agriculture Department has functioned mostly as a protector of agribusiness interests, but Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack have both said all the right things about looking after eaters as well as producers.”

Now that his public health issue has been brought to the attention of the millions of The New York Times readers, maybe it can gain some traction in Washington.

-John Berggren

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