09/01/2011 - On Aug. 3, a leading meat producer recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey tainted with salmonella. It was one of the largest recalls of meat in our nation's history, but it came too late for 111 Americans who had already fallen ill, including one who died, from food poisoning.
The bacteria at the center of this outbreak were resistant to at least four antibiotics commonly used in turkey production. Hundreds of scientific studies conducted over four decades suggest this is no coincidence: Giving antibiotics to turkeys — and chickens, pigs and other food animals — to make them grow faster and to compensate for the effects of unsanitary and overcrowded conditions contributes to the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria that can make people sick. The facts are clear, and it is time for Congress and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to end this dangerous practice.
Some industrial farming interests maintain the science is inconclusive. They are at odds, however, with the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization and hundreds of other organizations representing doctors, scientists and patients. Moreover, officials from the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testified before Congress last year that there is a "definitive link" between antibiotic use in food animal production and drug-resistant infections in people.
According to the CDC, salmonella is responsible for about one million food-borne illnesses each year and $365 million in associated medical costs. The CDC noted in its alert regarding the most recent salmonella outbreak, "This antibiotic resistance may be associated with an increase in the risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals."
It is not surprising this outbreak involved drug-resistant bacteria. According to the FDA, more than three-quarters (78 percent) of the salmonella found in ground turkey in 2009 was resistant to at least one antibiotic, rising from 63 percent in 2002. In 2009, 26 percent of the salmonella found in ground turkey was resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics, up from 20 percent in 2002.
To reverse these trends, the FDA should issue common-sense rules and guidelines that state how antibiotics can be used on industrial farms. For example, it should say clearly it is appropriate to prescribe these drugs for sick food animals or if there is a documented illness in the herd or flock. The agency should also distinguish that it is inappropriate to use these drugs simply to make animals gain weight faster or to offset overcrowding and poor sanitation.
Many industrial farming interests defend these practices and assert that restricting them will adversely affect output and increase prices. A growing number of industrialized nations are proving otherwise. Five years ago, the European Union banned the use of antibiotics to promote animal growth. Earlier this year, South Korea became the first nation in Asia to do the same.
If we stopped feeding healthy animals low doses of antibiotics in the United States, the National Research Council estimated it would increase the cost of meat and poultry by about a penny to a nickel per pound. Our health care system pays a far greater price for antibiotic-resistant infections — up to $26 billion annually. There are human costs as well: Drug-resistant bacteria kill tens of thousands of Americans each year and hospitalize hundreds of thousands.
Each time a person or an animal takes an antibiotic, it gives bacteria the chance to develop resistance. We cannot stop this process; we can only slow it down. This means we must use antibiotics only when we absolutely need them: to treat sick people or animals.
For years, doctors across the country have been doing their part. Between 1992 and 2000, for example, the number of antibiotic prescriptions for human patients dropped about 25 percent.
Doctors and their patients cannot shoulder this burden alone. It is time for food animal producers to step up, rein in the overuse of antibiotics on industrial farms and help preserve the effectiveness of these drugs.
Read the opinion editorial Antibiotics in Animals are Making Us Sick on the Sun-Sentinel's Web site.