In the US, what percent of all antimicrobial drugs are administered to animals?
A) 0% - Why would anyone give animals antibiotics used for humans?
B) 15% - Ehh, a little antibiotic-resistant bacteria helps keep us all on our toes.
C) 50% - Hey, we should push the envelope and find out how severely we can impair public health!
D) 80% - Prudence is for idiots! Let’s administer antibiotics recklessly and see what happens!
Correct answer: D. Sadly.
Unfortunately, this fact shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; the Union of Concerned Scientists provided the same stat ten years ago in the 2001 report, Hogging It: Estimates of Antimicrobial Use in Livestock. Of course, industry has since ignored and/or rejected this figure every chance they've had (“[moan]; 80% is grossly inflated,” “[groan], UCS is totally biased,” “[smirk] antibiotics are an integral component of a healthy diet!” etc.)
But despite the best efforts of Agribiz, as this week’s press release from Congresswoman Louise Slaughter reports, the FDA has officially confirmed the 80% figure; check it out. I should note that our friend Ralph Loglisci of the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future contacted the FDA back in December and was given the same numbers (he wrote an excellent post about this, which is absolutely worth reading). Nonetheless, it seems significant that the antibiotics stats have been released to and publicized by a congressperson. Very official, we think – and hopefully capable of capturing the nation’s attention.
Why does this matter?
Because the wanton overuse of antibiotics by industrial livestock producers threatens human health! Here’s why – if you administer a low dose of antibiotics to animals on a factory farm, you risk promoting the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (The antibiotics kill off some bacteria, but bacteria with resistant traits survive, passing their resistant traits along to future generations; find an overview of the process on Sustainable Table’s Antibiotics page – or if you want all the details, visit the Keep Antibiotics Working website.)
What’s wrong with promoting the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria?
It makes antibiotics less effective – including the antibiotics used to treat humans.
Well then why would factory farms recklessly administer antibiotics for nontherapeutic purposes?
Because it increases their profits. Industrial livestock producers love antibiotics because they boost animal growth rates (which allows them to fatten animals faster using less feed) and because they help fend off disease, which would otherwise quickly become widespread due to the crowded, stressful, filthy conditions in which factory farmed animals are raised.
Shouldn’t there be a law against this irresponsible practice?
Yeah. Unfortunately though, there isn’t. Yet; Congresswoman Slaughter is the author of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which would prohibit the use of medically important antibiotics as growth promoters for animals. Slaughter plans to introduce PAMTA to Congress (again) this year; we're hoping that the FDA figures inspire prudent legislation.
UPDATE - March 9, 2011:
Congresswoman Slaughter reintroduced PAMTA (H.R. 965 the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act).