Worried that antibiotics overuse is spawning dangerous, medicine-resistant bacteria, the Food and Drug Administration recently recommended that livestock growers use penicillin and tetracycline only to treat or prevent illness in animals, and not to fatten them for slaughter, as is commonly done. The feds stopped short of calling for an outright ban on antibiotics in feed and water, perhaps because they have fought and lost that battle with agribusiness for decades.
Wendy Heiger-Bernays, an associate professor of environmental health at the School of Public Health, believes it’s a battle that agribusiness will continue to win, at least until a major food-related illness alerts Americans to the dangers of their industrialized food supply.
The New York Times recently reported that 100,000 deaths occur annually from antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” contracted in hospitals, but health professionals suspect that people also die from superbugs contracted through eating animals dosed with antibiotics. Heiger-Bernays notes that MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a potentially lethal antibiotic-resistant bacterium, has popped up in some European livestock operations.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) estimates that 70 percent of agricultural antibiotics are used to foster animal growth, rather than treat or prevent animal sickness. While endorsing the FDA’s guideline, the Animal Health Institute, a trade group, disputes that figure, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association issued a statement saying that “more clarity is needed in definitions related to many of the concepts in this document.”
Seeking more clarity, BU Today spoke with Heiger-Bernays about the wisdom of the FDA’s move.
BU Today: Does the FDA’s recommendation make sense to you?
Heiger-Bernays: I don’t think what they’ve proposed goes far enough. It’s going to identify the antibiotics that are used most frequently, but that opens the door to all the other antibiotics. The European Union has gone much further in banning antibiotics for growth promotion.
Often, the animal husbandry practices are so poor—the animals are living in unsanitary conditions, and they’re crowded—that there are metabolic disorders and infections in these animals. What is the true medical need for the antibiotics? For example, cattle have traditionally been fed grass. When we industrialized the process, we moved to feed them grain. Grain changes the normal makeup of the bacteria in their intestines and stomachs. It makes them more susceptible to illness. You may have a medical need to treat them because you’ve grown them so they grow more rapidly and you can slaughter them faster. Now you have to give them more antibiotics.
So should we be banning factory farming, not antibiotics?
Yes, we should. We’re using these antibiotics to make up for poor living conditions.
But we’re not going to ban factory farming, are we?
It’s not going to happen, not now. If the public wakes up and looks at where their food is coming from, I suspect there’ll be a significant push.
Were the FDA to ban antibiotics, does it have the resources to enforce it?
No. The Bush administration eliminated the enforcement branches of these organizations. We don’t have the staff to be able to do the inspections. And it’s a good chunk of money for the corporations that manufacture the antibiotics.
Is there any reason to hope this situation will improve, from a public health perspective?
Public health is about prevention. What we find happening is that we respond. We don’t know that something is not working until it goes wrong. We had a number of MRSA cases a couple of years ago, and people started to pay attention. Many physicians stopped prescribing antibiotics routinely, and there has been a push to remove them from consumer products, like hand soap. But I don’t think we’re going to see something significant until we have numbers of cases of illness in the human population traced back to factory farms.
Why hasn’t that happened yet?
It probably is happening. Of the food-borne illnesses we get, some estimates say less than 1 percent are reported. If we’re having diarrhea, we would not tell our doctor.
Rich Barlow can be reached at email@example.com.