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Get tougher on antibiotic use in animals [Commentary]

Science tells us that the overuse of antibiotics is leading to "super bugs," bacteria that are increasingly difficult if not impossible to kill with antibiotics. The biggest users — and arguably abusers — of antibiotics are large-scale industrial farms. More than 70 percent of antibiotics are used on livestock and poultry, and at many facilities, antibiotics are fed to animals that aren't sick. This enables the animals to grow faster and lets them stay healthy despite cramped, confined quarters where bacteria abound.

If there were no side-effects from using antibiotics in this manner, then "no harm no foul." But here's what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said: "much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe." In fact, the Who's Who of public health groups have cautioned against using antibiotics in this manner — including the World Health Organization, American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, the Infectious Disease Society of America, and American Academy of Family Physicians, to name a few.

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It's with this backdrop, then, that President Barack Obama issued an executive order last month called "Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria." In essence, it's a broad spectrum plan to keep antibiotics working. There's a lot of good in there, but in one very important way, the new executive order report falls short. It doesn't get tough on factory farms.

The executive order talks about preventing large scale livestock operations from using antibiotics to make animals grow faster. And clearly that's good. But evidence strongly suggests that cracking the growth promotion nut will not result in the necessary reductions of antibiotic use. A new Maryland PIRG Foundation report, Weak Medicine: Why the FDA's New Guidelines Are Inadequate To Curb Antibiotic Resistance and Protect Public Health, outlines why.

First, all classes of antibiotics used to promote growth can also be used to prevent diseases. Therefore, an industrial farming operation could simply do nothing more than claim that these drugs are being used for disease prevention rather than growth enhancement.

Second, experiences from other countries strongly suggest that even a ban on using these drugs to promote growth won't work. For more than 30 years, European regulators took action to prohibit the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, yet antibiotic use in animals did not decline because farms increased the antibiotics fed to animals for "disease prevention." In 2011, the European Parliament adopted a resolution stating that the ban was insufficient to protect human health from the overuse of antibiotics. Meanwhile, both Denmark and the Netherlands took stronger actions that banned the practices of feeding animals antibiotics for "growth promotion" and "disease prevention," and they have since seen large reductions in antibiotic use in animals and a decrease in antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

Finally, according to a trade group of animal pharmaceutical companies, only 10-15 percent of antibiotics purchased for animals were for growth promotion.

There are two bright spots coming out of the White House announcements. One, outside of livestock, the administration is taking important actions, including improving the tracking of antibiotics used on humans and animals, and the surveillance of super bug outbreaks. Efforts to stop the spread of super bug infections in hospitals and other in-patient facilities are also increasing.

The second bright spot is that all the doctors, consumer groups, environmentalists and public health experts that have called for stopping the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms will get one more bite at the apple, or in this case, the meat.

The administration is developing a five year National Action Plan, and it's due out in February. With some encouragement and prodding, the plan might finally do what others have been unwilling to do, that is to get tough with factory farms. The Weak Medicine report recommends banning the use of antibiotics for "disease prevention" and the use in animals of certain antibiotics especially valuable to humans.

Livestock operations shouldn't endanger our health by pumping antibiotics into animals that aren't sick.

Matthew Wellington is a campaign organizer fir Maryland PIRG; his email is matt@marylandpirg.org. Dr. Robert S. Lawrence is director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; his email is rlawren1@jhu.edu.

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