I don’t feel like talking about the election today. So let’s talk about something else. On Wednesday, the FDA finalized a plan to ask drug companies to “voluntarily” limit the use of certain antibiotics in animal feed.
This might not seem like a huge deal to you. But it is. And it gets to one of my favorite scary statistics: 70 percent of the antibiotics used in this country — 70 percent! — go into livestock production. And that’s before you even get to the antibiotics that are used on animals who actually fall ill.
The reason is simple enough: If we didn’t pump our livestock full of antibiotics, they would get sick. They are, after all, packed into dim and dirty enclosures. They’re stacked on top of one another. And they’re being fed food they didn’t evolve to eat. All of this makes animals sick. But rather than raise them in a way that doesn’t make them sick, but costs somewhat more, we just keep them on constant does of antibiotics.
And then we eat them. Which means we get constant, low-grade doses of these antibiotics. Which means common bacteria get constant, low-grade doses of these antibiotics. And there’s mounting evidence that this background exposure to antibiotics is contributing to the startling rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Everything from staph to strep to salmonella is exhibiting uncommon resilience in the face of our latest drugs. A 2003 World Health Organization study (PDF) put it pretty starkly: “There is clear evidence of the human health consequences [from agricultural use of antibiotics, including] infections that would not have otherwise occurred, increased frequency of treatment failures (in some cases death) and increased severity of infections.” Even stronger was the title of a 2001 New England Journal of Medicine editorial: “Antimicrobial Use in Animal Feed — Time to Stop.” (Full disclosure: I’m partially quoting from a column I wrote on this subject in 2009.)
As my colleague Dina ElBoghdady notes, these concerns aren’t new. The FDA proposed banning penicillin and two forms of tetracycline for use on livestock in 1977. But industry opposition led to congressional oppositions, and the FDA backed down. Last year, the National Resources Defense Council, alongside a few other health and consumer-advocacy groups, sued to get those regulations back on track. Last month, a federal plaintiff court in Manhattan ruled that the FDA had to restart those proceeding. “The scientific evidence of the risks to human health from the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock has grown, and there is no evidence that the FDA has changed its position that such uses are not shown to be safe,” Judge Theodore H. Katz wrote.
The FDA would prefer a voluntary approach. They’re asking drug makers to reserve 200 antibiotics for humans because it’s the right thing to do. If they fail to comply, they have to say, on their labels, that these drugs are also used for animals. But if you’ve ever read the label on an antibiotic, you know it’s rather long. That’s not much of a sanction.
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, a former microbiologist, has introduced The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which takes a more aggressive approach: It simple reserves seven full classes of antibiotics for human use. If her legislation passed, those antibiotics simply couldn’t be used for livestock.
A 2005 study out of Tufts University estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections add $50 billion to the annual cost of American health care. On the other side of the coin, a National Academy of Sciences study found that eliminating non-therapeutic antibiotics from animals would cost about $5 to $10 per person per year. I’d pay that for a lower risk of super-staphylococcus.
This is the sort of issue that doesn’t tend to get much attention in Washington. But it matters. To put it in the simplest terms, a drug-resistant superbug might kill me, or kill you. The budget deficit probably won’t.