Who's Hogging Our Antibiotics?

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Anti-drug posters are a mainstay of mass transit systems across the country. But this month Metro riders in Washington, D.C.—particularly commuters who use the Capitol South and Union Station stops (in close proximity to Capitol Hill)—are seeing cautionary ads that feature some unusual species of drug abusers: pigs, cows and chickens.

The advertising campaign, produced by the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, is part of a national effort to ensure antibiotics remain effective by ending their misuse on factory farms.

Large industrial farming operations, where most of our food animals are raised in the United States, routinely mix human antibiotics with livestock feed to make them grow faster and to compensate for overcrowded, stressful and unsanitary conditions. While antibiotics are prescribed for people to treat short-term disease, these same critically important drugs are fed to herds or flocks of animals at low doses, often over their entire lives. In fact, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70 percent of all antibiotics used in this country are given to farm animals that are not sick.

This practice creates ideal conditions for the breeding of new and dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Bacteria acquire resistance to antibiotics through prolonged exposure to low doses. Their biological systems learn to recognize the chemical mechanisms that antibiotics use, develop defenses that resist or evade those mechanisms, then include those genetic traits as they reproduce—spreading the drug resistance among entire bacterial colonies.

It is believed that these new, potentially deadly strains can then be transferred to humans in many ways including through the consumption and handling of contaminated meat, contact with infected farm workers and eating crops that have been contaminated by manure. Overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture has been directly connected to resistant campylobacter (the most common food borne illness that causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramping), E. coli and Salmonella. Research is now under way into whether super-bug MRSA infections also can be traced back to misuse of antibiotics by large-scale livestock feeding operations.

Each year 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths are caused by dangerous pathogens and bacteria such as E. Coli and Salmonella. They are particularly deadly in their antibiotic-resistant forms, because they are harder to treat and may require longer hospital stays before finally being eliminated.

The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other leading medical groups agree that the increase of dangerous bacteria that are resistant to antibiotic treatment is a looming public health challenge. And the misuse of antibiotics on industrial animal farms plays a significant role in this crisis.

Traditionally, large-scale farmers have argued that feeding antibiotics to livestock cuts their costs, making food cheaper for consumers. But recent economic analysis of the use of antibiotics in poultry production suggests that the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics is no bargain. In fact, data show that improving the management of farm animals (e.g., cleaning facilities more thoroughly and frequently) achieves the same benefits. Furthermore, antibiotic-resistant infections cost the U.S. health care system $4 to $5 billion per year.

It is important to note that this problem doesn't appear on all farms, or in all livestock operations. Many American farmers have found that consumers prefer meat, eggs and other products that are produced without antibiotics. Note, too, that the problem doesn't stem from giving antibiotics to animals that have bacterial illnesses requiring treatment. Instead, it's the misuse of the drugs that's to blame.

This summer, Congress will be weighing measures aimed at improving both health care and food safety. Thanks to these new "drug-abuse" posters, elected officials and staffers who take Washington's subway to work will have an opportunity to reflect on the ways that continued antibiotic misuse on factory farms could undermine that legislation, as well as endanger human health.

Laura Rogers is project director of the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming.  This op-ed appeared on The Huffington Post.