A report out of the United Kingdom found that, worldwide, antibiotic-resistant bacteria could kill more people per year by 2050 than cancer kills today.
THROUGHOUT its history, the United Nations General Assembly has convened to discuss major global threats, including nuclear proliferation, human-rights abuses and global climate change.
Thus, it is fitting and overdue that the General Assembly met Sept. 21 to discuss one of the most daunting public-health threats facing the world today: The increasing failure of lifesaving antibiotics.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million Americans are infected with some form of an antibiotic-resistant pathogen each year, and 23,000 die from those infections. A report out of the United Kingdom found that, worldwide, antibiotic-resistant bacteria could kill more people per year by 2050 than cancer kills today.
The overuse of antibiotics fuels the rise of these drug-resistant bacteria. This certainly occurs in hospitals and doctors’ offices, where antibiotics are sometimes prescribed when the best course of action may be to wait and see if a patient does indeed have a bacterial infection.
But far more troubling is the routine dosing of cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys and other food animals with our lifesaving medicines, even when they are not sick.
Approximately 70 percent of medically important antibiotics in the United States are sold for use in agriculture. The drugs are typically given to healthy animals on a routine basis in order to “promote growth” and prevent disease brought on by unsanitary conditions. This practice breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can spread into the community via contaminated food, human-to-animal contact and via airborne dust and water runoff.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has adopted policies encouraging the “judicious use” of antibiotics in agriculture, they are half-measures that are having little effect thus far. A voluntary red light is given to the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, but a green light is given to using the drugs to prevent disease. Not only does the voluntary nature of these guidelines do little to ensure that they are adhered to, but permitting use for disease prevention continues the kind of routine antibiotic use that accelerates antibiotic resistance.
If parents mixed antibiotics with their child’s cereal before they went to school each day, they would be admonished. Yet, every day across the country, industrial farms apply that exact same logic to the animals they raise for meat.
Despite the U.S. government’s reluctance to stand up to the meat producers and drug companies, who often resist needed regulation, there has been progress.
In the face of consumer pressure, restaurant chains like Subway, Chipotle, Panera Bread, Taco Bell, Papa John’s, Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s and more have pledged to stop serving meat raised with the routine use of antibiotics. In August, McDonald’s announced that they had reached their goal early for serving chicken raised without medically important antibiotics.
Additionally, California has in essence rejected the FDA half-measures by passing a state law to prevent the misuse of antibiotics in livestock and poultry. Progress is being made outside of the country, too, as both Denmark and the Netherlands have adopted strict regulations to stop the misuse of antibiotics in agriculture. Despite industry concerns in those countries, their meat production has either stayed steady or has increased since those regulations were adopted.
On Sept. 13, multiple consumer, environmental, food and public-interest groups petitioned the FDA, urging the agency to follow the lead of California, Denmark and the Netherlands in protecting our health by prohibiting the inappropriate routine use of antibiotics on animals that aren’t sick. The FDA should move quickly to adopt strong standards.
At the same time, consumers should pressure food producers to do the right thing, by purchasing foods raised without this harmful practice.
It is important that the U.S. stake out a leadership role on this worldwide public health threat. Taking action would not only protect antibiotics within our borders, but it would also give us standing to push other nations to do the same at a time when action is so desperately needed.