For two years my colleagues at the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production and I poured over volumes of data on what the Food and Drug Administration calls on its Web site “a growing threat,” and what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has termed “among its top concerns” — the phenomenon of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
What we found in our research was that overuse of antibiotics, especially in the production of food animals, is one of the primary culprits. We released our findings in April of this year with the recommendation that the FDA phase out the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animal production, meaning quite simply, preserve these drugs to treat sick animals, not healthy ones, and don’t use them simply to stimulate weight gain.
Our report and recommendations were met with an enthusiastic reception by the public health and medical communities. In July, the FDA announced that it planned to ban the use — other than for strict, medically limited purposes — of cephalosporin drugs in food animals, effective December 1 of this year. Cephalosporin drugs are a powerful class of antibiotics used to fight infections in people, one of our newest and most effective lines of defense against harmful bacteria. But strangely, just five days before the ban was set to take effect, the FDA, with none of the fanfare that accompanied the original announcement, reversed itself.
What changed in less than five months? Certainly the problem hasn’t gone away. It has only gotten worse. Newspapers are full of stories of Americans falling victim to serious infections that are resistant to traditional antibiotic treatments. Just one of them, methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), kills more people in the United States each year than AIDS.
A decade ago, the Institute of Medicine estimated that antibiotic resistant bacteria generated an estimated $4 billion to $5 billion per year in extra costs to the U.S. health-care system, and costs have skyrocketed from there. Apparently, the drug companies and their allies in the animal agriculture industry were only too happy to lean on friends and quietly preserve a system that, for them, is incredibly profitable — never mind the growing threat to the health of the public.
As a former dairyman and Kansas governor, I was therefore disappointed to see my state’s health department named as supporting reversal of the ban, lumping it with such special interests as the National Turkey Federation. On the other hand, groups supporting the ban included the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Infectious Disease Society of America and the American Public Health Association, among others.
It would be most interesting to know the basis for any organization’s objection. Certainly the pressure on food animal producers is tremendous. A growing demand for meat and poultry led to a model of production that relies on what are commonly known as CAFOs — concentrated animal feed operations. Such industrial agriculture packs animals into such tight areas that often the conditions require a regimen of antibiotics to help avoid disease. Yet this practice, while once economically defensible, no longer is. The threat to public health from the antibiotic overuse alone is putting the human population at risk while adding billions to our health care budget.
The rest of the world has leapt ahead of us on this issue. In Europe, antibiotics have long been eliminated from food production. South Korea followed suit this summer. Our refusal to turn away from this practice could cost us markets for our food products overseas and, by extension, precious jobs here at home.
The Pew Commission was composed of farmers, doctors, veterinarians, economists and other talented professionals who took on the challenge of finding a model that would allow U.S. farmers and ranchers the freedom to pursue their livelihoods in a way that does not adversely impact public health, the environment and the economies of their communities. We believe we found such a model, and it included phasing out the indiscriminate overuse of antibiotics.
Changing the way agriculture works in this country will likely prove challenging, and involve many difficult decisions. It’s a tragedy that on this occasion the FDA took the easy — and more dangerous — way out.