You may be more likely to associate antibiotics with your doctor’s office than your supermarket. But according to Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, based on data provided by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 80 percent of all antibacterial drugs sold in the US are used on farm animals.
Now the FDA is taking steps to address the disproportionate dosing. In December, the organization released a proposal asking all animal drug manufacturers to voluntarily alter their labels so that farmers will no longer be able to use certain antibiotics for “enhanced food production.”
Under the voluntary regulation, newly labeled drugs would no longer be approved for uses like making animals grow faster or improving feed efficiency so that animals require less food to gain weight. Additionally, veterinarians would need to sign off before antibiotics that are commonly used in human medicine could be used on farms.
Why Are Antibiotics Used on Farms?
While the drugs are used to treat diseases and infections in sick animals and prevent illness in healthy animals, antibiotics are also used to fatten the animals quickly and cheaply. Antibiotics speed weight gain in cattle, pigs, and chicks and enable them to reach desired weights faster without requiring as much food, saving farmers precious dollars on feed.
What’s the Problem with Using Antibiotics on Farms?
What’s the harm in that, you ask? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other health organizations, the repercussions are significant. At least two million people in the US become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, and a September 2013 CDC report indicated that antibiotic-resistant infections kill about 23,000 Americans every year.
The CDC states that all uses of antimicrobial drugs in humans and animals can contribute to antimicrobial resistance. By using drugs intended to treat human diseases in order to make animals grow faster and cheaper, medications can become less effective as the bacteria they target become resistant to their effects.
“Resistant bacteria can contaminate the foods that come from [food-producing] animals,” the CDC report states. “And people who consume these foods can develop antibiotic-resistant infections.”
How Do Bacteria Become Resistant to Antibiotics?
One reason bacteria become resistant to antibiotics is that the drugs are overused and the bacteria evolve to “outsmart” them. Every time antibiotics are used, it becomes more likely that bacteria will become resistant. That’s why the CDC recommends using antibiotics only when the drugs are absolutely necessary.
Is the FDA’s Proposal Enough?
According to the FDA’s new proposal, asking manufacturers to voluntarily alter their labels will cut down on the number of approved uses for antibiotics in agriculture and tighten control on the remaining uses.
Asking companies to make the changes rather than mandating they do so “avoids legalistic, product-by-product regulatory proceedings that would take years to complete.” – FDA food safety official Michael Taylor
“I think they did the absolute minimum they could do. It’s not a regulation but a recommendation, and it’s hard to believe the pharmaceutical industry will give up such a big part of their business on a voluntary basis. The loophole here is that they simply re-label the use of antibiotics from growth promotion to disease prevention, and keep on doing what they’ve been doing. Too little too late.” – Consumer health advocate Michael Pollan
Companies were given 90 days from the date of the December 11, 2013 proposal to agree or disagree with the voluntary regulations, and they will have three years to implement the changes if they consent.
Is Antibiotic Resistance Solely Due to Farm Use?
Although the reported amount of antibiotics dedicated to increasing farm animal growth is staggering, it’s not the only reason we’re becoming resistant to the drugs. A study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that doctors prescribed antibiotics for 60 percent of sore throat cases, even though only 10 percent required them.
In addition, a 2011 study published in Pediatrics looked at a nationally representative sample of almost 65,000 outpatient visits by children under 18 between 2006 and 2008. The researchers found that 23 percent of the visits in which antibiotics were prescribed were for conditions that didn’t require them. The authors concluded that “broad-spectrum antibiotic prescribing in ambulatory pediatrics is extremely common and frequently inappropriate.”
“Antibiotics are powerful tools that have allowed us to conquer previously untreatable infectious diseases, thereby allowing people all over the globe to live better and longer. The inappropriate use of these drugs threatens all of this–not only are people being given potent medications with potentially severe side effects in situations when they are not needed, but this rampant use of antibiotics in patients and feed animals threatens to render their use ineffective as resistance soars.” – One Medical Group provider Malcolm Thaler, MD
What Can You Do As a Patient and Consumer?
The next time you have a persistent cough, fever, or other ailment, trust your provider. The illness you have may not really require antibiotics, and expecting or demanding the medication can do more harm than good.