Piper Hoffman

Rock the Boat
Editor’s Pick
APRIL 27, 2012 1:22PM

SUPERBUG MEAT: FACTORY FARMS WEAKEN ANTIBIOTICS

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Originally published on Care2.

We’ve all heard about the antibiotic crisis: overuse has led to bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, opening the door to superbugs for which we have no cure. Those superbugs cause infections that are fatal in 30-60 percent of cases.

What we haven’t heard as much is that the biggest abuser of antibiotics isn’t human patients and their doctors: it is factory farms, which are responsible for 80 percent of antibiotic use. They spike livestock feed with the medications to make “meat animals” grow faster. Seven million pounds of antibiotics are sold for human use every year, while 28.8 million pounds go into cows, pigs, turkeys, sheep and chickens.

Lawsuit Against the FDA

Recently the government moved a couple steps closer to ending this lunacy. First, in a lawsuit called Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. vs. U.S. Food & Drug Administration, federal Magistrate Judge Theodore Katz ordered the FDA to reintroduce a draft rule it first proposed 35 years ago but never acted on.

The rule would require that “an antibacterial drug fed…to animals must be shown not to promote increased resistance to antibacterials used in human medicine.” The rule would not prohibit giving animals medication to treat disease. The Court’s order would obligate the FDA only to give the public (i.e. agribusiness) a chance to contribute its two cents (i.e. big fat political donations) on whether the proposed rule should be adopted. Legally, the Court can’t make the administration adopt the rule.

The FDA Asks Agribusiness, Pretty Please, to Take Antibiotics Out of Feed Voluntarily

Second, the FDA announced after Magistrate Judge Katz’s ruling that it is “proposing a voluntary initiative” to end the use of antibiotics to speed the growth of animals raised for meat, while permitting the use of the medications to treat disease under a veterinarian’s supervision.

The new initiative, being voluntary, is toothless. The Center for Science in the Public Interest called it “tragically flawed” because it relies “too heavily on the drug industry and animal producers to act voluntarily in the best interest of consumers.”

The FDA practically boasted in its press release that it had worked “to ensure that the voices of livestock producers across the country were taken into account.” These are the same producers who have dictated the government’s non-action on this issue for three decades and it is no surprise that they are still running the show.

Agribusiness Pretends to Play Along; Nobody Buys It

Agribusiness is trying to ward off meaningful government intervention with a charade that it is voluntarily slashing its use of antibiotics. For instance, as Reuters reports, “the poultry industry [says] it already has ratcheted down ‘by a large margin’ its use of antibiotics.” But agribusiness has been on notice since 1977 that the government disapproved of its massive overconsumption of antibiotics and didn’t try to fix the problem until now. It is awfully convenient to claim that it can self-regulate just when a federal lawsuit shines a light on its long-term failure to do just that.

The same Reuters article reports that the “director of FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, noted voluntary efforts to reduce antibiotic use and said, ‘We believe additional steps are necessary to have a real impact on this problem.’” In other words, the FDA admits that agribusiness is not and will not do enough to solve the problem voluntarily. Still, it chose to address the problem with a brand new voluntary initiative. That is an agency working hard to have no impact on anything.

The Science Says: Global Public Health Crisis

Contrast this sluggish inaction with the magnitude of the problem: the FDA itself told the Court that antibiotic resistance is “a mounting public health problem of global significance” and that dosing livestock with antibiotics “for production purposes…is not in the interest of protecting and promoting the public health.”

There is no doubt that factory farms’ use of antibiotics is directly causing the rise of superbugs. The science is clear that feeding animals antibiotics just to make them grow larger faster threatens human health. In 1997, for example, the World Health Organization recommended a ban on feeding animals antibiotics for growth if the same antibiotics are used to treat humans. In 2010, the FDA reviewed this and other studies and concluded, as it had back in the ’70s, that factory farms shouldn’t feed antibiotics to animals. And just like in the ’70s, the FDA once again didn’t do a thing about it.

Why it has been necessary to sue the FDA to make them do what they already know they should do is a mystery. And this lawsuit isn’t even the first effort to roust the administration to action. In 2009 and subsequent years, as reported by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “hundreds of…health, consumer, environmental, agricultural, and humane organizations” supported a bill in Congress to address the problem. It didn’t pass.

Doctors Want to Protect Antibiotics

Doctors are on the front lines of the battle against antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and they have taken sides in the struggle to get antibiotics out of factory farm feed. Three antibiotics doctors commonly prescribe, penicillin and two forms of tetracycline, are at issue in the lawsuit. The American Medical Association endorsed the 2009 bill to reduce the amount of these medications fed to animals raised for meat.

The AMA’s newspaper quoted Dr. Brad Spellberg, associate professor of medicine at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, California, as saying, “I’ve seen patients die of treatable infections. I’ve told their family, ‘I have no medicine to use.’ This is a catastrophic public health crisis. I don’t know how else to put it.

Our health is far more important than some extra profit for factory farming conglomerates. Please help convince our government of that by signing the petition to the Obama administration calling for an end to agribusiness’s abuse of antibiotics.

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Comments

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The idea of industr self-regulation in these matters is ridiculous. As long as it is profitable for industry to put antibiotics in animal feed, they will continue to do so.

Thanks for posting this.
Great essay.

While one person cannot change the world, one person can take simple steps to do their share: if you oppose the misuse of antibiotics and cruelty to animals, stop purchasing factory farmed meat, eggs, and dairy. Either buy those products from small sustainable producers who raise their animals humanely and in clean conditions, or consider not buying them at all.
@baltimore aureole: I'm scared.
The FDA is a laughing stock. Even when whistleblowers finally do tell all it's too late for consumers who've relied upon the slop ConAgra produces for mass consumption.

Anybody buying into the "natural" wordage that appears on every item that's labelled on grocery stores is also buying into a false sense of packaging content that's shelf life involves processing foods with huge amounts of preservatives, dyes and other agents known to alter humans' metabolisms whence digested.

Is buying "organic" any better. Maybe. But even then there are no guarantees that US consumers won't get sick.

Spinach, eggs, peanut butter, are just a few recent cases where "organic" methods caused illnesses and deaths to unsuspecting consumers and these products passed stringent FDA processes before eaten.

When fighting "bac" we have to understand that cross-contaminants/contamination can be minimized by proper cooling and heating during transport and storage of all foods, whether they're meats or produce [fruits & veggies], dairy, etc., only a small fraction actually follow the USDA's minimal recommendations and even fewer are cited and even then enforcement proceedings have loopholes which allow agri-business to continue pending consumer complaints.
I may have missed it, but I didn't see a report that these medications are being passed from animal to human in the meat. If the animal eats it, processes it, then passes it, at what point is the active antibiotics passing to humans?

Also which of these superbugs, which are a problem, are bugs that can be passed from animals to humans? A chicken with a superbug that humans can't get, isn't a problem to humans.
Supposedly there are studies that prove conclusively that the drugs aren't retained in the animals' meat. I don't know if that's true - there are plenty of other reasons not to eat factory farmed meats. I'm totally in line with Beans&Greens' suggestion: stop buying it. The producers will get the message. And, yes, you can afford to pay more than 20 cents a pound for chicken. You can eat less meat and buy less other useless crap you're just going to throw out anyway.
This is an issue that has gotten some coverage lately, but the average consumer still probably has no idea. Europe has much stricter food production standards than us, as does Japan. We've chosen to go the cheap and convenient route, which may prove to be awfully expensive in the long run. Reading this, I'm glad we're eating mostly vegan now (with a little cheese occassionally) - not that agribusiness likely treats growing food plants in any more of a consumer-oriented fashion!
Great article. In addition to this particular horrifying problem, watch Food, Inc. if you want to weep and/or be terrified. Factory farming degrades everything and everyone involved. I do think we can have some success as consumers by not buying particular products, but only those with enough time and money to be interested will do so. We need regulation and that's supposed to be what our govt. agencies are for. Self-policing by private industry is a joke and it's disheartening to see govt. cave in to industry time and again.