Consumer rights advocates and health professionals are calling on the Obama administration to restrict the use of antibiotics on healthy factory farm animals, saying the “overuse and misuse” of antibiotics generates bacteria that are resistant to one or more classes of drugs.
“Bacteria is getting resistant to these antibiotics they’re using at factory farms, and the bacteria is then being passed to our community through the air we breathe, through water, through animal waste and through the food we eat,” said Dev Gowda, of the consumer advocacy group, Illinois PIRG. “President Obama and the FDA need to take action and essentially save antibiotics for future generations.”
In a report released Tuesday, Ending the Abuse of Antibiotics in Livestock Production: The Case for Reform, the U.S. PIRG Education Fund reports that more than 70 percent of antibiotics used in America are used in factory farms to prevent illness in healthy animals and as a growth agent, essentially to help the animals grow in often unhealthy conditions.
Consequently, farmers are creating antibiotic-resistant organisms in the animals, which can then be passed to humans, Gowda said.
He added that if factory farms don’t put an end to this practice, antibiotics could essentially be useless to humans in the future.
“This is a major public health issue that will only get worse if we don’t take action now,” Gowda said.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2013 that more than two million Americans get sick from drug-resistant bacteria every year and 23,000 people die annually from antibiotic resistant infections.
Also, the World Health Organization reported earlier this year that “superbug” infections result in more than 8 million additional days of hospitalization for patients, costing the U.S. health system alone between $21 billion and $34 billion every year.
“The natural consequence of antibiotic use is that organisms become resistant, and we’re facing a situation in human medicine where we have resistant organisms that cause severe infections rising much faster than our ability to make new antibiotics,” said Dr. Sameer Patel, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
For its part, U.S. PIRG has encouraged more than 4,000 medical and health professionals to sign a letter to President Obama calling for reform. In Illinois alone, more than 200 health professionals have signed the letter, Gowda said.
Tuesday’s report also included a list of policy recommendations for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
U.S. PIRG recommends the FDA immediately restrict the use of antibiotics in livestock production to only cases of animal sickness or direct disease exposure; require that the administration of antibiotics to animals on factory farms be prescribed by a qualified veterinarian; and, among other things, develop a tracking system to document the sale, use and impact of antibiotic use in livestock production.
“Antimicrobial resistance is a growing public health problem that requires immediate action,” U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D, IL-9) said in a statement. “A major cause is the use of antimicrobials in livestock – used to make animals bigger and heavier. The result for humans is that bacteria become resistant to antimicrobials, and we are more susceptible to serious illness or even death. Stopping the overuse and overexposure of antimicrobials in livestock is a key solution to protecting human health. “
The antibiotic resistant bacteria can get transferred from factory farm animals to the human population through food consumption, contaminated soil and dust, or water runoff from farms, according to Patel.
A 2012 study conducted at Arizona’s Translational Genomics Research Institute documented that since the early 2000s, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) “has become a rapidly emerging cause of human infections, most often associated with livestock exposure.”
The laws for antibiotic use in factory farms right now are “very, very loose,” according to Patel.
“We really need to do everything we can to prevent unnecessary antibiotic use so we don’t burn all of our options, or waste our options for human medicine,” Patel said.
Photo courtesy of Illinois PIRG