(Beyond Pesticides, August 4, 2009) In July 2009, the House Rules Committee held a hearing on the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA – H.R. 1549). The legislation introduced by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY), is designed to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics by phasing out the non-therapeutic use of medically important antibiotics in livestock. The bill does not restrict use of antibiotics to treat sick animals or to treat pets and other animals not used for food.
“There is little doubt that antibiotic-resistant diseases are a growing public health menace,” said Rep. Slaughter, a microbiologist with a master’s degree in public health. “From peanut butter to spinach to hot dogs, we all want to make sure the food we feed our families is safe. My legislation will limit the use of antibiotics on our livestock to ensure that we are not inadvertently creating antibiotic- resistant diseases that we can’t fight with modern medicine.”
Antibiotics are an indispensable part of modern medicine, protecting all of us from deadly infections. Unfortunately, over the past several years, the widespread practice of using antibiotics to promote livestock growth and compensate for unsanitary, crowded conditions has led to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and other germs, rendering many of our most powerful drugs ineffective.
Supporters of the legislation are optimistic that renewed congressional interest in food safety and a supportive administration will see the legislation signed into law this congress. In his testimony before the committee, Joshua M. Sharfstein, MD, Principal Deputy Commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration, said, “There is clear evidence that the use of antimicrobials in general selects for resistant organisms. To avoid unnecessary development of resistance under conditions of constant exposure to antibiotics, the use of antimicrobials should be limited to those situations where human and animal health are protected. Purposes other than for the advancement of animal or human health should not be considered judicious use. Eliminating these uses will not compromise the safety of food.”
According to estimates by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), 50 million pounds of antibiotics – nearly 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. – have been used in food animals for purposes other than treating disease since PAMTA was last introduced two years ago.
In her testimony before the committee, UCS’s Margaret Mellon, Ph.D. explained the clear scientific case connecting antibiotic resistance with the practice of feeding antibiotics to livestock and poultry that are not sick. “Antibiotic resistance is of particular concern in terms of food safety,” said Dr. Mellon. “The CDC has found that half of all human Campylobacter infections are drug resistant as are one in five Salmonella infections. Nearly 100,000 of the Salmonella infections would resist treatment with at least five antibiotics. Salmonella and Campylobacter, the most common sources of food borne illnesses in the United States, account for well over a million resistant infections in this country each year.”
Organic practices already prohibit the use of antibiotics, as well as hormones and other animal drugs in animal feed for the purpose of stimulating the growth or production of livestock. If an antibiotic is used to restore an animal to health, that animal cannot be used for organic production or be sold, labeled or represented as organic.
There is also substantial evidence that the widespread use of antibacterial compounds, such as triclosan and triclosan-containing products, promote the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibiotic medications and antibacterial cleansers. While manufacturers of such products claim that the use of antibacterials will protect your health and that of your family, it may actually contribute to more illnesses.
Support a food system that supports human health rather than working against it. Buy organic food whenever possible. To support limiting antibiotic use in conventional agriculture, take action supporting PAMTA on the UCS website. To read more about the impact of triclosan and other antibacterial cleansers, see our antibacterials program page.