Time for the Meat Industry to Stop Overdosing on Antibiotics

Last Updated May 27, 2011 3:46 PM EDT

Five environmental and public health groups sued the FDA over the alleged overuse of antibiotics in industrial farming. The suit (PDF here) may finally shed some authoritative light on the endless, he-said/she-said debate over antibiotic use on farms, at least once it winds it way through the court system.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animals Concern Trust and Public Citizen want the FDA to curtail the use of human antibiotics on chickens, pigs and cattle that aren't sick. They say the widespread practice -- 80% of all antibiotics are consumed by farm animals -- is contributing to the spread of human infections that no longer respond to antibiotics.

According to the NRDC:
By overusing antibiotics on farms and feeding them to healthy animals we're making the drugs doctors rely on to treat illnesses like pneumonia, strep throat, and childhood ear infections less effective.
Large farm groups like the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) couldn't disagree more. They insist that what farmers choose to do to their animals has no bearing on human illnesses. In an email, Dave Warner of the NPPC explained that there's no scientific evidence to support the claims of the NRDC and other groups:
Just because hogs may develop resistance -- and it's a scientific fact that antibiotic use causes bacteria to develop resistance to survive -- doesn't mean antibiotic-resistant bacteria are passing from them to people. Those supporting a ban on the use of certain antibiotics in food-animal production think it is happening, but there's no scientific study showing that link. (If it were happening, wouldn't you expect people who work with the animals to have a higher incidence of antibiotic-resistant illnesses than the general population? They don't)
So who's right? There's no question that the dynamic of antibiotic resistance is a complicated one and a problem that's probably more nuanced than advocacy groups let on. But the meat industry is clearly ignoring the presence of inconvenient science. The Pew Charitable Trusts, which supports dramatic reductions in animal antibiotic use but is not part of the lawsuit, has a lengthy document detailing research showing a relationship between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans.

Ignoring inconvenient science
The studies are too numerous to mention here, but they include several that refute Warner's claim that farm employees don't have higher levels of resistant bacteria. One from 2007 found that workers on and residents near antibiotic-using pig farms had higher amounts of resistant E. coli than people on hog farms not using antibiotics.

When asked about this, the pork industry says that, while it may be true that farm workers have higher levels of resistant bacteria, they don't result in illnesses that are untreatable with antibiotics. "What's being used in pork production are old drugs, the tetracyclines and the early penicillins, not the important drugs that are being used in human medicine. There just isn't an impact on human health," says Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian at the NPPC.

Nonetheless, the government certainly seems to have taken a close look at some of this research. At series of Congressional hearings last July, two officials made the case for taking action. John Clifford, deputy administrator for veterinary services at the USDA, said:
USDA believes it is likely that the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture does lead to some cases of antibacterial resistance among humans and in the animals themselves and it is important that these medically important antibiotics be used judiciously.
Then several days later, former FDA deputy commissioner Josh Sharfstein hammered home the point:
You actually can trace the specific bacteria around and ... find that the resistant strains in humans match the resistant strains in the animals.
But after fingering farms as part of the problem, the FDA has yet to take any action. All it's managed to do is issue preliminary guidelines that are both voluntary and weak. It may just take a lawsuit to give the FDA the push it needs to stop sitting on the fence.

Image from Farm Sanctuary
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  • Melanie Warner

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