It’s only a matter of time before the policy makes routine infections in people difficult or impossible for doctors to treat.
Scientists have been begging the FDA for three decades to ban or severely reduce farmers’ use of penicillins and tetracyclines in animal feed to stimulate growth. The American Medical Association and the Union of Concerned Scientists agree that antibiotics in animals consumed by humans dramatically reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics used by people.
The Obama administration should have followed the lead of the European Union and banned antibiotic use by ranchers for healthy animals, period. The FDA instead continues to put the profits of the meat industry over the health of Americans.
Following an outcry from scientists in 2011, the FDA’s only concession was to formally ask pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily reduce sales of antibiotics for use in food animals. (Really; don’t laugh.)
The results were predictable. The FDA revealed last week that sales of the two most commonly used antibiotics in livestock and poultry increased for the second consecutive year. All told, ranchers purchased 14.4 million pounds of penicillins and tetracyclines in 2011, a 2.9-million-pound increase from 2009.
Nearly 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are given to healthy farm animals.
Ranchers use them mainly to help animals grow bigger, but they also use them when cattle, pigs and chickens are packed in tightly constrained spaces. The drugs decrease the likelihood diseases will occur and spread. Hey, it’s easier than creating more humane conditions for the animals. And the FDA isn’t about to make them stop.
President Obama needs to change that, and if he doesn’t, Congress must step in. The most pro-business lawmakers have families; do they want to lose a child to an infection that today, but not for much longer, would be easy to cure?
It is children who are most at risk from antibiotic-resistant diseases, since their immune systems are not fully developed. Pediatricians have bent over backward in recent years to only prescribe antibiotics only when necessary, since routine use is not in children’s best interests.
Scientists aren’t only concerned that antibiotics will be less effective. It’s also a cost issue.
A Centers for Disease Control-sponsored study showed that antibiotic-resistant infections cost Americans in excess of $20 billion every year. Several recent, credible studies also indicate that overuse of antibiotics in animals is leading to more dangerous forms of Salmonella, E coli and urinary tract and blood infections. They fear the development of some new form of infection that won’t respond to any known drugs.
The meat industry will not act responsibly in this, with profits at risk. The FDA should be acting on behalf of Americans, but if it won’t, Congress needs to step in.