REMEMBER pink slime? It’s a so-called food additive that made news in March 2012 when reports said that it was present in over 70 percent of ground beef sold in the United States.
Though deemed safe for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration
in 2001, consumers were uncomfortable with the use of these filler materials in their ground beef. Producers of pink slime warned that its removal from ground beef would increase food prices, yet it was mostly eliminated from ground beef in the months that followed.
The pink slime controversy has passed, but the routine use of antibiotics to treat livestock is a public health threat for carnivores and vegetarians alike.
Although it failed to pass on Nov. 5, state Initiative 522 to label genetically modified food raised the public’s awareness about food labeling. The initiative’s defeat probably does not pose a health risk, but we do believe that labeling meat and dairy products produced from livestock treated with antibiotics would provide substantial benefits for all Americans.
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The prophylactic use of antibiotics in animal husbandry is out of control. The FDA estimates that over 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are given to perfectly healthy livestock.
That’s 13.5 million kilograms into animal feed per year, compared with 3.3 million kilos given to humans. Antibiotics are thought to promote the growth of animals, for reasons not understood, and allow them to be kept in unsanitary conditions. In the short term, this results in cost savings for producers, some of which are likely passed on to consumers.
Unfortunately, this widespread use of antibiotics applies enormous selective pressure on the microbes carried by livestock. Susceptible bacteria are killed, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria grow in their place.
These resistant germs may then be spread to farm workers and food consumers, causing infections that are increasingly difficult to treat. Meanwhile, the drug industry is neither able nor willing to create new antibiotics to keep pace with this evolving threat.
As physicians, we’ve seen the devastating impact of antibiotic resistance on the health of our patients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that at least 23,000 people in the U.S. die every year from antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
President Obama has urged that antibiotics only be used to treat livestock with infectious diseases, which is now the practice in the European Union.
The National Resources Defense Council is suing the FDA to force an end to the practice, but that case could take years to resolve. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has co-sponsored the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act of 2013, which would phase out the use of antibiotics in animal feed. But this will be a tough sell in dysfunctional Washington, D.C.
Pharmaceutical companies continue to promote the use of antibiotics for livestock, and the agricultural lobby is poised to fight vigorously. The nonpartisan website GovTrack.us gives this bill a 2 percent chance of getting past committee, and no chance of ultimately being enacted. A similar bill in the U.S. House of Representatives has equally dim prospects.
If Congress cannot outlaw this practice, then perhaps consumers can demand change. Some sellers of meat and dairy products now label their foods as antibiotic-free. We feel that foods derived from livestock raised with antibiotics should also be so labeled.
Such labeling would increase consumer awareness of the dangers of antibiotic abuse and empower them to stop supporting this dangerous practice. The marketplace may provide the food industry with a critical incentive to substantive change. If pink slime can leave our diet, then certainly antibiotics can too.
We hope that the clearly important topic of antibiotics in food will be addressed in the near future, whether in the courts, at the legislative level or at the polling booth.
David Ramenofsky is a doctor of hospitalist medicine at Northwest Hospital. Paul Pottinger, an infectious-disease doctor, directs the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at the University of Washington Medical Center.