Unless you're eating organic meat, you're getting a mouthful of antibiotics with every burger, fried chicken wing, or turkey sandwich you eat. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that 80 percent of the antibiotics used in this country are fed to farm animals or slipped into the animals' drinking water to promote growth and protect the creatures against the diseases that thrive in the filthy living conditions they are raised in. And most of those are given when the animals aren't even sick.
That has to stop, say the 200 farmers, food producers, physicians, and scientists who signed on to two letters last week vehemently urging the FDA to put the brakes on the rampant overuse of these vital drugs in animals raised for food.
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"While the U.S. medical establishment is making strides in reducing unnecessary antibiotic use, the agricultural community is not keeping pace," says the letter written by physicians and scientists, including former FDA Commissioner Donald Kennedy, PhD, now President Emeritus at Stanford University—so much so that diseases from antibiotic-resistant germs now kill more Americans than HIV/AIDS.
The most well-documented scientific reason for cutting back is an increase in food poisoning caused by drug-resistant strains of Salmonella and campylobacter bacteria. More studies are pointing out that antibiotics in farm animals are heavily tied to drug-resistant strains of E. coli and to MRSA infections.
That evidence has been met with flat-out denial by the meat-producing industry, says Justin Tatham, senior Washington representative with the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, who worked with a coalition called Keep Antibiotics Working to coordinate the publishing of the letters. "Over the last year or two, we've been seeing a lot of similar attacks on the science similar to what we've seen on the climate change issue," he says. "The agriculture industry is casting doubt on the quality of the science surrounding antibiotic resistance. But in fact, the science is very clear. We're beyond the point of debating whether the science is clear and need to focus on the solutions."
Not only that, antibiotics are unnecessary, write the group of farmers, which included the CEOs of Niman Ranch Pork Company and Applegate, both of which produce antibiotic-free meat products; Andrew Gunther, the program director of the third-party Animal Welfare Approved certification program; and dozens of other small and independent meat producers. "Our farms and ranches demonstrate that it is possible to protect public health and offer Americans a steady supply of food. And they show that it is not only possible but actually economically viable," their letter reads. "These farmers are actively pursuing another route in housing animals under conditions that are more sanitary and more sustainable, without the need for abundant overuse of antibiotics," Tatham says.
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The FDA is making small strides toward controlling this problem. The agency has restricted the use of one class of antibiotics, cephalosporins, in all food-producing animals because of an increasing concern that their heavy overuse is contributing to antibiotic-resistant Salmonella and E. coli.
Still, the agency won't ban food animal use of antibiotics outright. Instead, the FDA has asked livestock producers to voluntarily eliminate the routine use of antibiotics in animals that aren't sick and to consult with a veterinarian before administering any drugs to animals that may be sick.
But that doesn't fly, say the scientists. "While we support the effort to renounce drug approvals for injudicious uses, we cannot support a voluntary approach," they write. "Too much is at risk to leave public health to the discretion of those whose financial interests run counter to the aim of reducing drug use."