(Beyond Pesticides, March 16, 2011) Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) introduced legislation last week that seeks to help protect Americans from widespread antibiotic overuse in food animal production. Antibiotic use in agriculture, as well as in antimicrobial soaps containing materials such as triclosan, offer little to no benefit for public health, but instead contributes to increases in the growth of resistant bacteria. This makes antibiotic and antibacterial resistance a national health concern, due to the fact that it can make infections difficult or impossible to treat.
Rep. Slaughter’s bill, H.R. 965 — the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, would preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics used to treat human disease by requiring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to revoke approval of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes unless the agency determines that the drugs do not produce unsafe levels of antibiotic resistance. The bill would allow farmers to continue to treat sick animals with antibiotics.
“Antibiotic resistance is a major public health crisis, and yet antibiotics are used regularly and with little oversight in agriculture,” said Rep. Slaughter. The main culprits are confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) operators that routinely add human antibiotics to livestock feed for non-therapeutic purposes, such as accelerating growth and preventing diseases that are common in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions.
When an infection is treated with an antibiotic, there can be at least a small number of bacteria that survive the treatment. These bacteria then serve as the basis for succeeding generations which will inherit the resistance genes, and the process will continue, until the entire population has evolved to resist the effects of a certain antibiotic treatment. The process is most likely to occur when bacteria are repeatedly exposed to low doses of antibiotics, killing a small amount, but leaving the rest to develop immunity. Putting antimicrobials in soaps or antibiotics in animal feed results in precisely these kinds of low dose exposures which put the general public at risk of untreatable infection.
Estimates by the public health advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists suggest that 70 percent of antibiotics used in the United States are devoted to the non-therapeutic treatment of cattle, swine and poultry, endangering human health by contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections.
According to the USDA’s standards for certified organic agriculture, producers of organic livestock cannot use antibiotics in any form, with the exception of limited emergency situations, and even then, its use is strictly regulated. Regulatory prohibition is beside the point, however. One of the reasons that CAFO operators feel they need to feed their animals antibiotics is that the conditions in which the animals are housed in these operations present the perfect breeding ground for disease. Organic producers do not house their animals in these conditions, and so the prophylactic use of antibiotics is largely unnecessary.
Currently, organic fruit producers growing apples and pears are allowed to use the antibiotics streptomycin and tetracycline to control a fruit tree disease called fire blight, though tetracycline use is due to expire on October 21, 2012. Recently, a committee of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which is charged with approving or prohibiting substances for use in organic production, determined that allowing antibiotics to be used as pesticides is inconsistent with organic principles as outlined in the Organic Foods Production Act, and recommended that they be prohibited. The full committee recommendation for streptomycin can be read here, and for tetracycline here. In addition to citing the availability of disease resistant fruit tree varieties, the committee expressed concerns about possible contributions to bacterial resistance, especially in light of recent research which has detected residual streptomycin in apples treated for fire blight. The full NOSB will vote on this matter, among others, at its annual spring meeting in April of this year. Recommendations and information on filing public comments with USDA by April 10, 2010 may be found at the National Organic Program website. For more information on organic agriculture, see our Organic Foods page. To learn more about the spring NOSB meeting, including what materials will be reviewed, go to the USDA’s meeting page (select April 26-29, 2011 from the drop-down menu).
Millions of Americans rely on familiar antibiotics, such as penicillin and tetracycline, to fight dangerous infections. The overuse of these antibiotics on the farm has transformed treatable human infections into deadly antibiotic-resistant illnesses that can result in long hospital stays, costly medical bills, and, in the worst-case scenario, death. In 2009, the Cook County Hospital in Illinois and the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics estimated that the total health care cost of antibiotic-resistant infections in the United States is $16 billion to $26 billion annually.
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