(Beyond Pesticides, October 25, 2013) A report released by a Johns Hopkins University panel reached two disturbing conclusions this week: (1) the United States population is continuing to face unnecessary public health risks because of the use of antibiotics in livestock production, and (2) the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other agencies are not likely to take meaningful action to address this risk.
The report, Industrial Food Animal Production in America: Examining the Impact of the Pew Commission’s Priority Recommendations, follows five years after the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) released its previous investigative report and recommendation to, among other actions, phase out and then ban nontherapeutic (or subtherapeutic) uses of antibiotics in industrial food animal production. The consequences of not following through on this recommendation would place the public at risk of increased pools of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
These superbugs threaten at least 2 million people each year and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.
Despite some congressional response following the release of the 2008 Pew Commission report and a federal court order requiring FDA to begin the process of revoking approval for uses of penicillin and tetracycline to promote growth in livestock, the antibiotic resistance problem remains a serious health threat. This most recent assessment by Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future (CLF) finds that not only does the public safety threat from increased antibiotic-resistant bacteria remain, but that the Administration and Congress have acted “regressively” in policymaking on industrial food animal system issues.
Robert S. Lawrence, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which produced the report, explained in a press release on the report, “There has been an appalling lack of progress. The failure to act by the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] (USDA) and FDA, the lack of action or concern by the Congress, and continued intransigence of the animal agriculture industry have made all of our problems worse.”
The problem dates back to the 1950s, when the practice of feeding subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics to livestock began to take hold. This practice has become chronic in the industrial-style livestock production systems. The unsanitary conditions produced by packing excessive numbers of animals into an unnatural environment create the risk of infectious disease outbreaks that would be averted under living conditions appropriate to each species. Livestock producers utilizing these practices, capitalize on the accelerated weight gain and improved feed conversion efficiencies associated with animals fed subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics.
The American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and hundreds of other organizations have recommended that livestock producers be prohibited from using antibiotics for growth promotion if those antibiotics are also used in human medicine.
Unfortunately, it is no small problem. While the Johns Hopkins panel report notes that part of the problem lies in the failure of USDA and FDA in tracking and requesting data on agricultural and livestock antibiotic usage, the best FDA estimates show agriculture as accounting for 80 percent of antibiotic sales, the other 20 percent allocated to human, therapeutic consumption.
There is hope for concerned consumers and the federal government: Organics.
Under the Organic Foods Production Act, (OFPA) certified USDA livestock producers cannot use growth promoters and hormones, whether implanted, ingested, or injected, including antibiotics. Additionally, certified USDA Organic livestock producers cannot use subtherapeutic does of antibiotics, meaning they cannot administer low-dose antibiotic treatments that are not for the purpose of treating sick livestock. The standards also require that producers maintain living conditions that prevent infectious diseases from becoming established and adversely impacting livestock health. Because of these standards, the choice to buy and eat organic beef, pork, and chicken is one way to help fight against unnecessary antibiotic over-use, but also to remind regulators that a system is in place which allows for successful livestock production without the unnecessary and dangerous overuse of antibiotics.
Keeping Organic Strong
Beyond livestock production, organic farmers growing apples and pears are allowed to use the antibiotics streptomycin and tetracycline to control a fruit tree disease called fire blight. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the principle advisory body responsible for advising USDA on its organic certification program, has been increasingly reluctant to extend these allowances due to concerns about accelerated resistance in pathogenic organisms and the availability of effective cultural practices and biological treatments for managing fire blight. The NOSB has recommended extending the use of tetracycline and streptomycin to manage fire blight in pear and apple trees through October 2014. At its April 2013 meeting, the NOSB chose to keep the 2014 expiration date in place for tetracycline, in response to a petition seeking continued use from the Washington State Horticultural Association, California Pear Advisory Board, and U.S. Apple Association. At its April 2014 meeting, the Board will be considering a petition to allow continued use of streptomycin, filed by the above petitioners plus the Michigan Horticultural Association.
Through supporting organic agriculture and fighting for even stronger organic standards, consumers have the power to make change happen on this important issue as regulators sit idle. For more information on what you can do to advance organic agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides’ Keeping Organic Strong website, which provides a number of resources for people to participate in the organic review process alongside the NOSB.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.