The discovery of antibiotics signaled a new era in medical care. Illness and death caused by once-lethal infectious disease were dramatically reduced as a result of these vital drugs. However, the power of antibiotics is fading away.
One important contributor to the problem of antibiotic resistance that is often overlooked is their routine use in food animal production. For the sake of the nation’s health, this practice needs to come to an end.
Every day it seems we learn of a new “superbug,” some familiar bacterium that has mutated into a particularly tenacious strain: Staphlococcus that ignores the very drugs invented to deal with its earlier immunities, Salmonella that simultaneously resists several classes of antibiotics, or Campylobacter that doesn’t respond to some of the most powerful antibiotics. These are just the tip of the iceberg because all bacteria have the potential for multiple resistances.
The primary causes of the increase in drug-resistant bacteria are repeated and improper uses of antibiotics. While sensitive bacteria are killed through the use of antibiotics, resistant germs are left to grow and multiply, promoting the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Physicians and health care professionals urge their patients to use antibiotics for the appropriate dose and duration. However, meaningful action to combat antibiotic resistance must reach beyond doctors’ offices. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, up to 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States go to healthy food animals. These routine uses of antibiotics are largely to promote animal growth or to compensate for unsanitary conditions found on industrial farms. Bacteria that become resistant can spread through soil and water runoff from animal waste. Further, they also can spread through the consumption of contaminated meat as well as physical contact from an infected animal.
Due to the minimal regulations in place requiring drug manufacturers or industrial farms to report how antibiotics are marketed and used in food animal production, the scale of antibiotic use remains largely unknown. Leaders in our nation’s capital are taking notice of this public health challenge. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. D-Calif., Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., are championing legislation -- the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA, H.R. 1549 and S. 619) -- that would withdraw the use of seven classes of antibiotics vitally important to human health from food animal production unless animals are sick with disease or unless drug companies can demonstrate that their routine use does not harm human health.
European nations have led the way in banning antibiotics for growth promotion. In Denmark, one of the world’s largest pork exporters, this has led to a 50 percent decrease in overall antibiotic use in swine production with virtually no harm to animal health. In addition, the country’s pork production increased and consumer prices were not impacted.
Closer to home, an increasing number of family farmers in Wisconsin and across the Midwest raise pork and other meats without the routine use of antibiotics.
Ending the routine use of antibiotics in industrial farming is a crucial step we need to take in order to preserve the effectiveness of these drugs for future generations. National organizations such as the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, Infectious Diseases Society of America, and American Public Health Association are urging Congress to pass PAMTA. In Wisconsin, supporters of the legislation include the Wisconsin Farmers Union, the Wisconsin Medical Society and Organic Valley. Wisconsin’s congressional delegation should likewise support this critical piece of legislation to save antibiotics so antibiotics can save us.
Shelley A. Hearne is the managing director of the Pew Health Group at the Pew Charitable Trusts and a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.