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BOSTON - A world in which common, everyday ailments become death sentences sounds like the stuff of dystopian science fiction. Yet, it is a real possibility facilitated by what may be the most pressing health crisis of the 21st century: bacteria that are increasingly resistant to our life-saving antibiotics.
This week marks Get Smart About Antibiotics Week, an initiative sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that is dedicated to informing people on the dangers posed by antibiotic resistance and the practices that fuel it. It is incumbent on leaders in both the public and private sectors to recognize the role they play in preserving antibiotics for future generations, and the destructive consequences that will follow if they fail to act now.
In the U.S. alone, the CDC estimates that at least 2 million Americans are infected with some form of an antibiotic resistant disease each year, and 23,000 people die as a direct result. Without swift action to reduce antibiotics use, that number is expected to rise.
Although antibiotics are overused in healthcare settings, it pales in comparison to the routine dosing of cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys and other food animals with our life-saving medicines, even when they're not sick. Such routine disregard for the longer-term public health consequences is far more troubling than a doctor unnecessarily prescribing an antibiotic to a patient with a viral infection.
Approximately 70 percent of medically important antibiotics sold in the United States are for use on livestock and poultry. The drugs are typically fed to healthy animals on a routine basis in order to promote growth and to compensate for unsanitary conditions. This routine use breeds antibiotic resistant bacteria that can multiply rapidly and spread into communities via contaminated food, human to animal contact, air born dust and water runoff.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to take real action to address the overuse of antibiotics on farms. Industry applauds the half measures put in place by the agency, but when you read in between the lines it's not likely they will reduce antibiotics use. The guidelines prohibit antibiotics used for growth promotion, but permit them for routine disease prevention. Essentially, this allows for the same misuse on otherwise healthy animals just with a convenient swap of the label.
Despite the U.S. government's unwillingness to stand up to the meat producers, factory farms, and drug companies that fiercely resist needed regulation, there has been progress.
Chains step forward
In the face of consumer pressure and the knowledge that antibiotics are vital to human health, restaurant chains like Subway, Chipotle, Panera Bread, Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A, Wendy's and more have made various commitments to stop serving meat raised with the routine use of antibiotics. In August, McDonald's announced that they'd hit their goal early for serving chicken raised without medically important antibiotics. Last month, major poultry producer Perdue Farms Inc. announced that it has eliminated antibiotics use from its chicken supply. Additionally, California has rejected the FDA half measures by passing a state law to prevent the misuse of antibiotics on livestock and poultry.
Policies adopted by major companies and one state are encouraging, and show true vision by those players. But the scale of this problem requires a national policy. It's time for the FDA to get smart(er) about antibiotics by banning the routine use of antibiotics on animals that are not sick.
We simply cannot afford to lose the foundations of modern medicine for a slightly cheaper burger.
Deirdre Cummings is consumer program director of MASSPIRG, a statewide, nonprofit, non-partisan consumer advocacy organization. Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge are the owners and farmers on the Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, and do not use antibiotics on their animals.
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