What will it take for the agriculture industry to stop feeding antibiotics to livestock for non-medical purposes? Will it take an all-out crisis for these farms to wake up, and will it be too late by then?
Bacteria that are resistant to ALL antibiotics have been found in China, and Denmark health officials in the U.K. believe the bug has made its way to that part of Europe. Health experts the world over agree that the spread of these antibiotic-resistant superbugs could erase modern medicine, and place the blame squarely on antibiotics fed to animals to promote growth and keep them healthy while living in flocks and herds, NOT to cure them from an actual illness.
That’s why this news is so disheartening: federal regulators said recently that U.S. sales of medically-important antibiotics approved for use in livestock rose by 23% between 2009 and 2014.
Last year, domestic sales and distribution of medically important antibiotics increased by 3%, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Cephalosporins, a class of antibiotics usually prescribed to treat ear and urinary tract infections, rose 12% in 2014.
Two years ago, the FDA attempted to satiate the fears of health experts and advocates by asking drug makers to voluntarily stop selling antibiotics that are important to human health for the purpose of beefing up their animals (no pun intended). Critics called the action useless and the drug and beef industries largely blew off the agency’s half-hearted request.
“Sales do not equal use and use is not the same thing as resistance,” said Ron Phillips, spokesman for the Animal Health Institute, which represents drug companies including Zoetis, Merck Animal Health and Eli Lilly and Co’s Elanco Animal Health.
“FDA also tracks resistance pathogens in humans, animals and meats,” he said, “and those trends have been largely encouraging.”
Under these so-called FDA “guidelines,” drug makers and agricultural companies were encouraged to phase out antibiotic use as a growth enhancer in livestock. Agricultural companies could still use the drugs to treat illnesses in animals raised for meat, but should be significantly reduced by December 2016 under a program to keep them out of the food supply.
The whole thing amounted to a joke.
After all, the FDA placed restrictions on cephalosporin use in 2012, banning the “extra label” use of the drugs. But sales still increased.
Last year, 97% of all medically-important drugs were available without a prescription or a veterinary feed directive. Medically-important antibiotics accounted for 62% of all drugs sold for use in food animals. And tetracycline – an older drug that is still important but no longer considered critical – represented 70% of these sales.
Industry-backed critics of antibiotic regulation like to point this out, but Texas Tech and Texas A&M researchers discovered that when they started using tetracycline in place of more “critical” human antibiotics, drug-resistance only become more problematic.
“We actually saw that resistance went up, which is not what we hypothesized,” Guy Loneragan from Texas Tech recently explained. “Our viewpoint historically has been that, sure tetracyclines aren’t that important for human health so why worry about them in animal agriculture? But they may be more important than we think, not because of their use in human medicine, but because they can expand resistance to critically important drugs.”
Earlier this year, California prohibited the use of medically-important antimicrobial drugs on livestock, except when prescribed by a veterinarian. They are the first state in the union to take such drastic measures – measures that Avinash Kar, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says are needed on a national level.
“Dangerous overuse of antibiotics by the agricultural industry has been on the rise at an alarming rate in recent years—putting the effectiveness of our lifesaving drugs in jeopardy for people when they get sick,” says Kar.
“We can no longer rely on the meat and pharmaceutical industries to self-police the responsible handling of these precious drugs. FDA must follow the lead of California and outlaw routine use of antibiotics on animals that are not sick in meat production nationwide. If we want to keep our antibiotics working for people when we need them, the agency must take urgent action.”
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.