Stop the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms
At least 23,000 Americans die every year from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that the widespread overuse of antibiotics on factory farms is making them less effective. Without leadership from Washington, D.C., we need restaurant chains and state governments to take action to address this public health threat.
WHAT IF ANTIBIOTICS STOPPED WORKING?
If you are like most Americans, you or someone in your family has been prescribed antibiotics to treat an illness. Maybe it was a simple ear infection, or strep throat. Or maybe it was something potentially life-threatening, like pneumonia or a post-surgery infection.
We assume that when we get an infectious illness the antibiotics our doctors prescribe for us will make us better. But what if they didn’t? Medical experts, including the World Health Organization (WHO), are warning that if we don’t stop the overuse of antibiotics, they could stop working — with potentially grave consequences for public health.
Each year in the United States, antibiotic-resistant infections already make at least 2 million people sick and at least 23,000 people die as a direct result of these infections. Some experts are predicting that by 2050, these infections could kill more people worldwide than cancer does today, and recently a Nevada woman died of an infection resistant to every antibiotic available in the United States.
ANTIBIOTIC OVERUSE ON FACTORY FARMS
Despite these warnings, many factory farms are giving antibiotics to healthy livestock on a routine basis. Why? Crowded and unsanitary conditions, along with other practices used on factory farms, can put animals’ health at risk.
But instead of treating sick animals with antibiotics when they get an infection, many farming operations just distribute antibiotics to all of their animals as a preventative measure. Factory farms also discovered that giving animals a regular dose of antibiotics made them gain weight faster.
Now, approximately 70 percent of all medically important antibiotics in the United States are sold for use in livestock and poultry.
Antibiotics are meant to be given in precise doses to treat specific types of infections. When they are used on a routine, or regular basis by farming operations, it increases the likelihood that bacteria resistant to the antibiotics will grow and spread, and our life-saving medicines won't work.
HEALTH PROFESSIONALS RAISING THE ALARM
The calls for action from the public health community are growing louder, and more urgent. For instance, World Health Organization officials have said: "Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill."
In November 2017, the WHO released new guidelines on antibiotic use in the meat industry, noting, "The world urgently needs to change the way it prescribes and uses antibiotics. Even if new medicines are developed, without behaviour change, antibiotic resistance will remain a major threat."
Doctors are also overwhelmingly concerned. In a poll released by U.S. PIRG and Consumer Reports, 93 percent of doctors polled said they were concerned about the practice of using antibiotics on healthy animals for growth promotion and disease prevention. In addition, 85 percent of doctors polled said that in the last year, one or more of their patients had a presumed or confirmed case of a drug-resistant infection.
IT’S TIME FOR ACTION ON ANTIBIOTIC OVERUSE
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the authority to regulate how antibiotics should be used. But so far their proposed rules have been weak, and don’t do nearly enough to curb overuse, especially in agriculture. We'll continue to advocate for strong federal action, but with the current administration unlikely to act any time soon, we’re not waiting around until they do.
So U.S. PIRG is organizing the public to push for change. We’ve collected more than 300,000 petition signatures from citizens and families, built a coalition of more than 40,000 doctors and members of the medical community, and enlisted the support of farmers who raise their livestock without misusing antibiotics.
Large farming operations and the drug industry have resisted change, and have so far blocked efforts in Congress and from government agencies. That’s why we've been working to convince big restaurants and states to pressure these farms to change their practices.
BIG FARMS & RESTAURANTS ARE STARTING TO DO THEIR PART
In 2015, we helped convince McDonald’s to stop serving chicken raised on our life-saving medicines. Shortly after, Tyson Foods, a major chicken producer and McDonald's supplier, followed suit. Then we convinced Subway, with more restaurants than any other chain in the United States, to make a commitment to stop serving any meat raised on antibiotics. Most recently, we helped move KFC, one of the country’s largest chicken restaurants, to eliminate antibiotics from their supply chain.
The result? We’re nearing a tipping point on chicken, where the market has forced many of country’s biggest chicken suppliers to change the way they use antibiotics. In fact, according to our Chain Reaction III report, 14 of the top 25 chain restaurants in the U.S. have taken steps to restrict the routine use of antibiotics in the production of the chicken they serve.
With thousands of Americans dying, and millions more getting sick from antibiotic-resistant infections every year, it's time for more chains to follow the lead of McDonald's, Subway, KFC and many others.
MORE CHANGE NEEDED IN THE STATES
Without leadership from Washington, D.C., we also need to make change happen in the states. Already, California and Maryland have passed laws banning the routine use of medically important antibiotics on farms that operate in those states. We’re running a coordinated campaign with our national network to stop the overuse of antibiotics in more states, including right here in Massachusetts.
This will not only increase the amount of meat raised without the routine use of life-saving medicines, but will increase pressure on the FDA and other federal decision-makers to pass strong national policies to protect public health.
The choice is clear: We shouldn’t tolerate the misuse and overuse of our precious life-saving medicines just so we can make burgers a little cheaper, or chickens a little fatter. We can’t risk the health of our children, or a future in which common infections that were once easily treatable are again life-threatening. What happens next is up to us.
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