Amidst growing concern about so-called “superbug” illnesses and the decreasing effectiveness of antibiotics to treat infections, Hill staffers, advocates and journalists gathered today to hear from public health and medical experts about the links between this emerging threat and the overuse of antibiotics in industrial food animal production.
Members of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) explained how antibiotics, which are antimicrobials, including those commonly used to treat infections in humans, are added to animal feedstocks in large scale commercial facilities to promote growth and uniformity in food animals such as poultry, pork, and cattle. The excessive use of such antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes is contributing to the mutation of certain bacteria and selection of forms that are increasingly resistant to these drugs. As more and more bacteria become resistant due to widespread low level use of antibiotics, they can transfer that resistance amongst the wider pool of bacteria in the environment, increasing the likelihood that a person will contract an infection caused by resistant bacteria.
Though the U.S. and most other countries do not keep records on the amounts of antimicrobials used in agricultural feed (feed formulations are considered confidential business information under U.S. law), most estimates suggest that agricultural feed use accounts for between 30% and 70% of total antimicrobial production in the U.S.
“We continue to lose the ability to treat certain human and animal infections with drugs that were once effective,” said Commissioner Michael Blackwell, former dean of the University of Tennessee, College of Veterinary Medicine, and a retired Assistant Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service. “An important step for all to take is to eliminate all unnecessary uses of antimicrobials.”
Recent headlines about the rise in cases of hard-to-treat MRSA infection (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) underscore the hazard of antimicrobial resistance. Antibiotics and antimicrobials once considered miracle drugs that are now weakened or ineffective against many types of bacteria include ciprofloxacin (used to treat anthrax exposure), penicillin, erythromycin, and vancomycin.
The problem of antibiotic resistance calls into question the safety of a system in which non therapeutic use of antimicrobials is the norm, as well as the safety of the products that result from a system that requires such wide-spread antibiotic use.
“Antimicrobials are a precious resource whose benefits extend to individuals and populations - and whose misuse affects individuals and populations. Any use of antimicrobials, whether in people, plants, or animals has an impact on bacteria,” said Commission member Dr. Mary Wilson, Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Associate Professor of Population and International Health at the Harvard School of Public Health. “We have a shared responsibility to use them wisely for the benefit of all.”
The Pew Commission was convened in 2005 to study the impacts of dramatic changes in animal agriculture in America over the past 40 years. The decline of the family farm and the concentration of the industry into a relative few large corporations has meant greater efficiency and lowered costs for producers. In the poultry industry about 99 percent of all broiler chickens are produced under contract with only about 50 companies in the U.S. It's estimated that the 10 largest companies produce more than 60 percent of all the broilers.
But this shift has also brought environmental, public health, and socioeconomic problems, such as the threat posed by antibiotic resistance. Today's event was the first in a series of Capitol Hill issue briefings on these risks and challenges, and will culminate in the public release on April 29 of a set of recommendations to address them. The PCIFAP's two-year study encompassed site visits to production facilities across the country, consultation with industry stakeholders, public health, medical, and agriculture experts, public meetings, and peer-reviewed technical reports.
For more information visit the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production Web site.