Op-Ed: Over-use of antibiotics in agriculture must be regulated and curtailed

Alexander Fleming, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who discovered penicillin, warned us of the folly of antibiotic misuse and the spread of resistance: “…the thoughtless person playing with penicillin is morally responsible for the death of the man who finally succumbs to infection with the penicillin-resistant organism.”

Much of the news coverage around antibiotic resistance places a focus on doctors who needlessly prescribe the drugs for viral infections, often at the insistence of misinformed patients, or through a “just in case” mentality.

A big piece of the problem largely overlooked by the public and decision makers, however, is the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms.  In fact, 70 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are sold for use in livestock production, and the vast majority are administered regularly to animals that are not sick.

Factory farms do this for two primary reasons.  First, it helps animals grow faster without additional food.  Second, it helps keep animals healthy in conditions that are often unsanitary and cramped.

Not only is the practice medically unnecessary, but it’s all together avoidable.  Countries like the Netherlands and Denmark have taken steps to limit the use of antibiotics on factory farms which resulted in less antibiotic use, less antibiotic resistance, increased yields, and negligible changes in the cost of meat.

A few weeks ago, on Sept. 18, President Obama issued an executive order entitled Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria that called for a number of actions to combat the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.  Unfortunately, it failed to confront the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms.

Instead, the federal action taken this month endorsed rules issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year.

As detailed in a recent ConnPIRG analysis, Weak Medicine, these voluntary rules are unlikely to result in a significant decrease in antibiotic overuse on animal farms.

First, the experiences of our friends in the Netherlands and Denmark suggests that such rules aren’t enough.  For decades, the European Union worked to decrease the use of antibiotics through a similar approach that focused on banning the use of antibiotics to help animals grow fatter.  In 2011, the E.U. concluded that their efforts had been insufficient to achieve any appreciable decreases in antibiotics use in agricultural settings.

Second, only a small percentage (10-15 percent) of antibiotic use is actually used to increase growth.  The majority are used to prevent disease.  Furthermore, all classes of antibiotics that can be used for growth promotion can be used to prevent disease.

Thus, if a factory farm wants to continue to use an antibiotic it is using to make its animals fatter, under the new FDA rules, it can simply change the designated use of the drug to prevent animals from getting sick.

The President’s executive order directs federal agencies to take several actions to stop the spread of superbugs.  It even offered a $20 million prize to encourage development of rapid diagnostics for resistant organisms – diagnostics that, ironically, we wouldn’t need if there weren’t resistant organisms.

Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, along with many other hospitals, has an active Antimicrobial Stewardship Program – but our efforts to improve antibiotic use in healthcare cannot possibly make a dent in overall antibiotic use if so much is relatively unregulated in agriculture.

The executive order also instructs the FDA to continue efforts to “eliminate the use of medically important classes of antibiotics” for growth promotion and to “monitor and report” on changes.  But we need more than monitoring and reporting.  We need action.

The medically unnecessary practice of giving antibiotics to healthy animals must end.

Humans don’t take a dose of doxycycline or amoxicillin with your morning coffee, unless of course they are sick.  Animals shouldn’t be treated any differently.

Livestock operations that give daily doses of antibiotics only jeopardize the best defense we have against both common and life threatening infections.

The president and FDA should act to limit the use of antibiotics only to cases of sickness or direct disease exposure.

Sean Doyle is the campaign organizer for ConnPIRG, a statewide, nonpartisan consumer advocacy organization. Nick Bennett is the co-director of Antimicrobial Stewardship, and the Medical Director for the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Immunology, at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

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