Opinion

A New Year's Resolution: Put Animals on an Antibiotics Diet


As Americans ring in the new year, many of us will resolve to get healthy. Meat and poultry producers can help -- by making a resolution to put their farm animals on an antibiotics diet.

Antibiotics are lifesaving medicines. But overusing them can have unintended consequences. That's what we're seeing on industrial farms where these drugs are being used on a massive scale in a way that threatens the public's health. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics are sold each year for use in food animal production, most often to make the animals grow faster and to compensate for overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. By comparison, drug makers sold about 7 million pounds of these products last year to treat sick people.

The FDA, the U.S Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all testified before Congress that there is a definitive link between routine use of antibiotics in animal production and the crisis of resistant infections in humans. New research indicates that overuse of antibiotics in animal feed is contributing to diseases not usually associated with food. These include drug-resistant urinary tract infections and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus -- better known as MRSA. Even World Health Organization director general Margaret Chan warned earlier this year that the "post-antibiotic era" is getting closer every day and would represent "an end to modern medicine as we know it" in which "things as common as strep throat or a child's scratched knee could once again kill."

There is a better way. We can feed the world without overusing these drugs to produce meat and poultry.

The place to begin is with more information. The U.S. Animal Drug User Fee Act -- passed by Congress in 2008 and administered by the FDA -- requires drug manufacturers to report total sales of antibiotics in food animals. This is a small but important step in the right direction. The FDA now has the statutory authority to find out how many tons of antibiotics are purchased for use on industrial farms. But we need to know more, and the opportunity to do so is just around the corner.

The act is up for renewal in 2013, with a "must pass" deadline of September 30. Congress should work aggressively to give the FDA authority to collect information that will answer two big questions: Which food animals are being given antibiotics? And for what purpose -- growth promotion, disease prevention or treatment? Armed with better data, the agency can more precisely tailor its policies to preserve antibiotic uses that advance human and animal health while ending practices that disguise poor production habits and serve no treatment purpose.

Second, what's good for people should be good for animals. Antibiotics such as penicillin, erythromycin, and tetracycline cannot be sold to humans without a doctor's prescription. That's common knowledge. What's less well known is that anyone can walk into a feed store, or go online, and buy these same drugs for animals without veterinary supervision. This obvious inconsistency needs to end. Fortunately, the FDA has announced an end to over-the-counter antibiotic sales for animals. Now it should move as quickly as possible to finalize a rule that would require veterinarians to oversee all antibiotic use on industrial farms.

Finally, the FDA and Congress, together, can take action to make sure antibiotics are used for treating sick animals or to control disease before it destroys an entire herd or flock, not as a way to promote growth or compensate for unsanitary conditions. Earlier this year, the FDA issued draft guidelines designed to stop the misuse of these drugs. While Pew welcomes this step, the agency may still allow antibiotics to be used to mask outmoded production practices. The FDA should strengthen and finalize its guidelines without delay.

Congress should also pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. Sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and others, this bill ensures that antibiotics vital for treating sick people will no longer be fed to animals for non-therapeutic reasons.

Every time we use an antibiotic, we contribute to the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria. We must use these medications more conservatively -- and that means using them only to treat sick animals. Other major meat-producing nations have successfully put their livestock on an antibiotics diet -- and the Obama administration is starting to move in this direction. 2013 should be the year that industrial animal agriculture finally makes a resolution to end this practice -- and sticks to it. 

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