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23,000 people die each year in the US from overuse of antibiotics. We should
regulate antibiotic use in agriculture
Wednesday 18 September 2013 09.15 EDT
pink slime – that Dayglo-bright mash of ground up
meat scraps and cow
connective tissues larded with industrial strength ammonia that was being served
up in school lunch programs in the
United States last year?
More ominously, there was
mad cow disease, which has killed scores of people in Britain and elsewhere.
Bird-flue outbreaks originating in poultry farms in China and Southeast Asia
have also led to periodic scares. And did I mention
But these food-related scourges pale in comparison with another threat, which
was the subject of a
Monday by the US Centers for Disease Control: the spread of antibiotic
resistant bacteria. In its first estimate of the scope of the problem, the CDC
says that 23,000 people – and possibly many more than that – die in the US each
year from infection by microorganisms that can no longer be controlled by our
current array of
We've known for a long time that our chronic overuse of antibiotics is helping
to create these dangerous new strains of bacteria. Public health officials worry
that doctors are routinely overprescribing powerful broad-spectrum antibiotics
for everything from stomach aches to common colds. The CDC report says that 50%
of all the antibiotics prescribed for people are not actually necessary.
But antibiotics are not just overused in medical care; we're also feeding them
indiscriminately to cows, pigs and chickens. Fully
80% of the antibiotics sold in the US are administered to farm animals in
their water and feed. The use of these drugs in agriculture is virtually
unregulated, according to Keeve Nachman, the director of the Center for a
Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University.
Nachman told me that we don't know exactly what antibiotics are being used in
meat production, or how large the doses that are administered are. Even more
critically, we don't know how much of these antibiotics remains in the meat that
we eat. There is no requirement to routinely test for this. Eating meat, even
with low doses of antibiotics, he warns, may lead to the spread of antibiotic
resistant bacteria in our own guts, if the meat is mishandled or undercooked.
There is also ample evidence that the overuse of antibiotics has created
resistant bacteria in the external environment. Studies have shown them in water
downstream from livestock farms, as well as in the air and soil near facilities
where antibiotics are used. Nachman himself published a study yesterday in the
journal JAMA Internal Medicine that shows that people living near swine
production sites are more likely to be infected with the superbug MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant
In light of these risks, the CDC report says pointblank:
The use of antibiotics for growth is not necessary, and the practice should be
Most antibiotics currently used on farms are not for the treatment of sick
animals, or even the prevention of disease, but to promote the growth and weight
of livestock. Until recently scientists didn't know how antibiotics stimulated
growth. However, a study published in the
journal Nature last year helped to clear up this mystery.
New York University researchers found that antibiotics have a big impact on what
is called the microbiome, the teeming ecosystem of billions of diverse bacteria
that live within the gut. Not only do they kill off many valuable
microorganisms, but they also apparently alter the ability of some gut bacteria
to metabolize carbohydrates. With the result that mice that the scientists fed
fattened up, just as as livestock do.
So if animals typically put on weight when they take antibiotics, what about
humans? A study published in the Journal of Obesity found a strong correlation
between exposure to
antibiotics in childhood and later obesity. But that may not be the worst of
it. Evidence is also mounting that low microbial diversity in the gut is
associated with a whole range of
inflammatory illnesses including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
With all of these dangers deriving from our overuse of antibiotics, Keeve
Nachman argues that the time has come to get serious about regulating them. He
The FDA has proposed a voluntary program in which the pharmaceutical companies
are asked to give up their drug approvals for purposes of growth promotion and
to relist them for purposes of disease prevention.
But Nachman calls this "essentially a shell game" which will change how the
drugs are labelled, but not the way they are actually used in animals.
To solve the problem, he says, we'll have to ban antibiotics except in actual
cases of illness. Farmers should be required to get a prescription from a
veterinarian, much as you and I need a prescription from their physician before
we can use the drugs.
There are already several European countries that have
banned the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in meat production. But so far
neither Congress nor regulators in the US have been willing to stand up to the
livestock lobby and protect the public's health.