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Editorial

Healthy livestock, sick people

The meat industry says giving animals antibiotics is necessary to keep costs down, but the risk of antibiotic-resistant infections is growing.

March 13, 2010

Year after year, legislation intended to preserve the effectiveness of available antibiotics by limiting their use in livestock is shot down. The latest bills introduced in both houses of Congress have been stalled for close to a year.

Banning the use of antibiotics in perfectly healthy animals has always been the right thing to do for the health of the American public. Overuse of antibiotics, whether in animals or humans, renders them less effective because it leads to the development of resistant bacteria. Not so long ago, humans were the ones ingesting too many of these wonder drugs, which were meant to fight infection, not acne or the sniffles. More recently, the overuse of antibiotics has been a staple of livestock operations, which feed low doses to animals to prevent disease from sweeping through overcrowded pens and as a growth enhancer. About 13% of the antibiotics given to farm animals are for growth, not medical treatment.

The industry claims the use of antibiotics keeps expenses down, but its calculations don't include the rising cost to the U.S. of antibiotic-resistant infections, in both health and actual dollars. Exotic antibiotics for resistant infections are far more expensive than the run-of-the-mill medications.

According to a report by the Associated Press, federal studies routinely discover drug-resistant bacteria in meat sold in the nation's supermarkets. The report cites the widespread agricultural use, starting in the early 1990s, of a family of antibiotics that includes Cipro. Several years later, Cipro stopped working 80% of the time on deadly human infections it previously had cured.

In its quest for ever-cheaper food, the United States has fallen behind the developed world when it comes to antibiotic use. Six years ago, the World Health Organization reported that the evidence clearly linked resistant, sometimes killer, bacteria to "nonhuman usage of antimicrobials." The European Union has banned the use of antibiotics in livestock except to treat illness.

Last summer, Joshua Sharfstein, deputy commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, told Congress that the practice of administering antibiotics to healthy farm animals had to stop. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture has thrown cold water on the cost argument, reporting that, except in the case of very young pigs, the cost of the antibiotics to the agricultural industry outstripped the financial benefits.

But these agencies' ability to change the outmoded, expensive and harmful farm practice is limited. There's always something urgent, like healthcare, dominating the congressional agenda. It's time to realize that protecting the usefulness of antibiotics is a pressing health matter as well.

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