What if a school added antibiotics to children’s lunches every day to prevent kids from getting sick in class? Parents and pediatricians would be up in arms, and rightfully so, because this practice would reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics and undermine our ability to treat these kids when they’re actually sick.
Yet that is exactly what is happening with the pigs, chickens and cows that produce the meat we feed to our families. It’s a direct threat to our health.
Here’s why: Today, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are sold for livestock use. A vast majority of these drugs are fed to livestock day after day to help the animals grow faster and to stave off disease that could result from overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions. This is the perfect recipe for breeding an army of antibiotic-resistant bacteria capable of traveling off the farm and into our communities and our bodies.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first recognized this risk more than 40 years ago. Since then, medical and scientific organizations across the world, including the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have raised the alarm over the practice, which is contributing to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But, unfortunately, little has been done to address the escalating threat.
And here’s what’s at stake: The effectiveness of lifesaving antibiotics that have led to innumerable advancements in modern medicine. Not only have antibiotics turned once-threatening diseases into easily curable annoyances; they also make possible countless procedures such as organ transplants, chemotherapy, surgeries and cesarean sections.
Already, many common infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria are no longer responsive to one or more antibiotics used to treat the infections. Consequently, such infections can last longer, require more hospitalizations, require the use of medicines with greater side effects and can even prove fatal when treatments fail. The costs are high; estimates place the costs of antibiotic-resistant infections at more than $55 billion a year in additional health care costs and lost productivity.
But there are things we can do to reduce the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and that includes stopping the misuse of these drugs in animal agriculture.
A measure like the one introduced by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco – Assembly Bill 1437 – is urgently needed because the FDA's approach would allow the continued use of antibiotics to compensate for poor conditions and essentially allow the status quo to persist.
It would require that meat and poultry sold in California come from animals that are treated with antibiotics only when they are sick or, in rare circumstances, when there is a disease outbreak. The bill would also require reporting on the extent and nature of the antibiotics used on cows, pigs and chickens that produce the meat sold in the state. Measures such as these would help reduce the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in California and would provide essential information to help track progress and identify risks and trends so that we can work toward real solutions.
Many farmers in the United States are living proof that raising antibiotic-free farm animals through good hygiene and improved management practices is both scalable and profitable. Farmers abroad who are only using antibiotics on sick animals show us that even industrial farms can stop using antibiotics on animals that are not sick while protecting food prices and increasing food production.
Denmark, which produces about as many pigs as Iowa (one of the top pork-producing states), reduced antibiotic use by nearly 50 percent, while increasing production by 12 percent and without a significant effect on its economy. Researchers have seen declines in the levels of several antibiotic-resistant bacteria in Danish animals and meat.
The Netherlands also has cut its antibiotic use in farm animals by half, with news reports suggesting no negative economic effects. Meanwhile, leading U.S. companies, including Chipotle, Panera and Applegate, are selling meat produced without antibiotics at mainstream prices. Chick-fil-A recently announced that it is going antibiotic-free within five years.
It’s time for all meat and poultry sold in California to be responsibly produced. Our meat and poultry should not be contributing to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We need measures such as AB 1437 to help curb that threat and, by doing so, help protect the health of all Californians.
Editor’s note: This column was updated to reflect that AB 1437 was withdrawn and will not be heard Wednesday before the Assembly Committee on Agriculture.
Avinash Kar is a health attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.