Dangerous Medicine in U.S. Food Production: Antibiotics

Robert S. Lawrence, Director, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

I applaud Nicholas Kristof for his column, “Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health,” in Wednesday’s edition of The New York Times. Mr. Kristof zeroes in on a critical public health issue that could have dire consequences if we do not stop using antibiotics and other antimicrobials as growth promoters in industrial food animal operations.

Nearly a year ago, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released a report entitled “Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.” After two years of extensive investigation, the Pew Commission found that the use of antibiotics in animals without a diagnosed illness (i.e., as growth promoters) was of “deep concern.”

In 1998, the National Academies of Science estimated that antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections were increasing health care costs by a minimum of $5 billion annually. The unchecked use of antibiotics in industrial agriculture is contributing to the spread of resistant organisms.

The volume of antibiotics used to treat human illness pales in comparison to the volume used in industrial farm animal production. In 2005, the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that while 3 million pounds of antibiotics were being used in human medicine each year, the food animal industry was using 24.6 million pounds, primarily to stimulate growth and increase production.

Resistant bacteria from industrial operations, such as the facilities mentioned by Mr. Kristof, can reach the human population in a number of ways-through our food and water supplies, the air we breathe, or direct contact with animals, to name a few. And there is increasing concern that this resistance can “jump” species of bacteria, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Prudent public health policy requires that non-therapeutic uses of antimicrobials in food animal production should stop. Economic analyses demonstrate that little economic benefit derives from using antimicrobials as feed additives, and that equivalent improvements in growth and feed consumption can be achieved by improved hygiene.

In 2006, Europe eliminated the use of antibiotics as growth promoters, and South Korea did the same last summer. The American Medical Association opposes the use of antibiotics in farm animals that are not sick, and WHO has called for phasing out the use of antimicrobials for growth promotion in livestock and fish production.

We must put an end to this practice.

*Note from LFB: You can follow Nicholas Kristof’s blog, On the Ground, or his Twitter feed.