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Imagine if a new type of infectious bacteria were unleashed on the United States, one that was largely immune to current treatment. Tens of thousands of people would die each year, with the possibility of more victims as the threat spreads.
It sounds like a science fiction movie — the kind where stern-faced scientists brief tense White House staffers who must lay out an aggressive course of action.
A similar situation is happening right now in the United States. This year, an estimated 23,000 Americans will die from superbugs, bacteria that are difficult or impossible to treat with antibiotics. The threat has the potential to grow dramatically, with scientists from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning that the spread of these superbugs threatens modern medicine’s best tool for fighting dangerous infections.
However, real life differs from the movies: the U.S. government has yet to take aggressive action to respond to the threat. This inertia is especially acute when it comes to one of the least justifiable contributors to antibiotic resistance in the United States: the overuse, misuse and flat-out abuse of antibiotics on factory farms.
Around 70 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are not used on people, but on animals — animals who often aren’t even sick — to make them grow faster or to prevent disease from unsanitary conditions. After repeated exposure to antibiotics, bacteria like salmonella and Campylobacter can develop resistance, and when those bacteria contaminate meat and are then consumed by people, they can cause serious infections. Antibiotic-resistant foodborne bacteria now cause an estimated 440,000 illnesses in the U.S. every year.
Additionally, these superbugs can travel off the farm via contaminated air and soil. So everyone, regardless of diet choices, is at risk.
Yet the Food and Drug Administration response to the threat is moving at a snail’s pace. In 2013, the FDA adopted a measure to limit antibiotic use on livestock, which is still being implemented. But the most important restrictions in that rule are easily circumvented. When it was announced, animal pharmaceutical companies said that they anticipated no noticeable changes to their sales — a clear indicator that the measure is likely to be ineffectual.
The FDA held a public meeting in October with the Department of Agriculture and the CDC to discuss how to collect data to analyze the effectiveness of its measures. And we do desperately need data on animal antibiotic use. Currently available sales data tell us that antibiotic use on animals is rising fast, but we know little about where antibiotics are used, or how, or on what animals.
But data-gathering is no substitute for action. And we already have good reason to believe that the FDA’s approach to curbing antibiotic use on factory farms simply won’t work.
Countries like Denmark, one of the biggest pork producers in Europe, have curtailed antibiotic abuse on factory farms by banning the administration of antibiotics to healthy animals. The FDA should follow its lead.
In so doing, the agency will likely have the backing of the American people, who are voting for responsibly raised meat with their wallets by eating increasingly at chains like Chipotle and St. Louis’ very own Panera, which have both committed to serving only meat that was raised without routine antibiotics.
No one wants to live in a post-antibiotic world, in which a simple scratch could lead to a deadly infection, as it did so often before we discovered penicillin. If raising animals without the routine use of antibiotics can help avoid that fate, it will be worth it.
In science fiction movies, scientists, the government and ordinary people rally with courage — and often against great odds — to take the actions necessary to protect the lives of vulnerable Americans. Let’s hope that the FDA discovers a bit of that courage and takes decisive action to protect the nation against the spread of antibiotic resistance.
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