Non-therapeutic Antibiotic Use in Agriculture
This essay investigates the use of antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease in the American animal agricultural industry. The purpose of this investigation is to address the environmental and possible health concerns surrounding the growing rate of antibiotic resistant pathogens due to the non-therapeutic use. This paper also seeks to explore the reasons why this issue has been allowed to reach a critical, dangerous level. This essay identifies the major players in the animal agricultural industry and their motives to maintain the status quo. This paper addresses the research and data provided by medical journals, disease control organizations and international health organizations who are working to raise awareness and address this global problem. Finally, this paper explores the avenues these organizations and individuals have proposed to address the issue collectively, in order to minimize the impact of antibiotic resistance.
If you are among the millions of American consumers who haphazardly select a bag of reasonably priced meat for your family’s dinner, you are most likely supporting a company partly responsible for the deaths of 23,000 Americans a year. These deaths, as reported by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, directly resulted from infections caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria (2013). Roxanne Nelson, a writer for the scientific journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases explains, “Factory farms in the USA routinely distribute antibiotics to food animals as growth promoters and to compensate for crowding, poor sanitation, and stress, all which increase the risk of disease” (2014). The practice of using of non-therapeutic levels of antibiotics to promote animal growth must stop because eating meat grown under these conditions is not only dangerous to our health, but it supports unethical factory farms.
The use of antibiotics to compensate for sub-par farming practices is a dangerous, widespread issue affecting all Americans. Although the FDA reports the continuous use of antibiotics in healthy livestock “could promote the development antibiotic resistance in bacteria”, over 10 million pounds of antibiotics are fed to poultry in the United States per year (Nelson, 2014). Eighty percent of the antibiotics consumed in the United States are administered to food animals, and most of the animals are healthy (Nelson, 2014). This is a disturbing statistic, considering it is common medical knowledge that using a reduced amount of an antibiotic allows the bacteria to gain a tolerance for the drug. Using simple logic, one can deduce that by giving livestock a weak dose of antibiotics throughout their lives, farms are breeding increasingly stronger bacteria.
Antibiotic-laced meats are ubiquitous in the United States due to a lack of regulation. As many of you know, the FDA regulates the animal agricultural industry in the United States. Since 1977, the FDA has warned farmers and ranchers of the risks associated with the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics to promote growth and prevent infections in their livestock. In 2013, the FDA reiterated this concern by acknowledging nontherapeutic antibiotic use as a “potential threat to public health” (Nelson, 2014). The FDA asked the major pharmaceutical companies to stop labeling the antibiotics used to treat human infections as acceptable to accelerate growth in livestock. This measure is voluntary, and gives pharmaceutical companies three years to comply. Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner, explained the regulatory process to force the pharmaceutical companies to change labeling would take years, and the agency does not have the resources to do it (Schuff, 2012). Taylor’s response admits not only the danger of the practice, but the agency’s inability to control the industry in a timely, efficient manner.
The animal agriculture business, like any other business, is always looking for ways to cut corners in order to maximize profits. Usually this entails replacing a higher quality product with a lower one while maintaining the same price point. In the animal agricultural business, maximizing profits means cramming as many animals into an enclosure as you can, with minimal labor costs. Normally, this would not be profitable because these conditions harbor viruses like the bird flu, but the wanton use of antibiotics enables farmers to not only avoid financially devastating disease, but also maximize profits while doing so. Obviously, breeders would not be purchasing antibiotics if the use of them did not result in increased profit.
The extensive environmental contamination caused by factory farm waste is a major concern for environmentalists, but relatively unknown to the American people. Factory farms produced 369 million tons of manure in 2012. Factory farms do not direct livestock waste to a wastewater treatment plant, but instead repurpose it as fertilizer. Consequently, the antibiotic- resistant bacteria contaminates the surrounding plants and animals (Food & Water Watch, 2015). Due to the ripple effect, the use of antibiotics in farm animals is compromising the health of vegetarians, vegans, and every living organism worldwide. As ethical human beings, we must not allow the gratuitous suffering of human beings or animals to avoid the inconvenience of taking action.
A widely held belief among the animal agricultural industry is there is a lack of there is a lack of practical or conclusive evidence that the use of antibiotics in agriculture has any correlation with antibiotic resistance in humans (Stewart, 2009). Some consumers might mirror these beliefs due to the efforts put forth by lobbyists employed by these industries in order to maintain a favorable public image and legal environment. In 2013, the American agricultural industry spent alone spent over thirty-six million dollars with lobbying firms (Center for Responsive Politics, 2013). Lobbying takes many forms; Rod Stewart, writer for Feedstuffs magazine, provided a summary of a letter sent to Obama by factory farmers seeking to convince the government and U.S citizens the overprescribing of antibiotics by doctors is the main cause of antibiotic resistance in humans (2009). Even if this position is some day proven by independent research, it still does not justify the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics. Even a contributing factor must be eliminated when the stakes are the world population’s ability to fight off potentially dangerous bacteria. It is likely this position is simply a result of the agricultural industry’s interest to continue to utilize drugs that allows them to run their businesses with little regard to hygiene or the stress levels of livestock—while inflating profits.
Unfortunately, there is not plentiful funding for independent long-term research studies associating the use of antibiotics in animals to antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans. However, microbiologist and medical doctor at Tufts University, Stuart Levy, did compare the amount of antibiotic-resistant pathogens in humans working in factory farms to an organic farm. Levy explains his research findings, “Low-dose, prolonged courses of antibiotics among food animals create idea selective pressures for the propagation of resistant strains” (2014). Levy conducted the experiment on a small farm in Denmark, a country that has taken the lead in the testing and surveillance of antibiotic resistant pathogens in the animal agriculture industry. During the experiment, Levy introduced antibiotics into the farm, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria quickly overtook the intestinal track of the chickens. Within 6 months, the majority of intestinal bacteria present in the farm workers was also antibiotic-resistant. The farm returned to organic practices, and within six months, the majority of the farm workers did not have antibiotic-resistant bacteria present in their intestinal track (Levy, 2014). Levy’s experiment explains why the antibiotic commonly used as a growth promoter in Europe responsible for a rise in resistance to vancomycin was common among the European population, but only affected U.S hospitals. This empirical evidence, and Levy’s research, proves the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics affects the human population.
Another prominent argument put forth by agribusiness is that not only is the use of non-therapeutic levels of antibiotics not harmful, but it is necessary. Carl Gahwiler, the president of the international animal health company alliance COMISA, predicts an antibiotic ban would render the animal agriculture industry unprofitable. Without the preventive use of antibiotics, animals would develop diseases, which would require higher doses of antibiotics for treatment. He explains antibiotics are vital to the industry and they provide healthier and affordable meats that would otherwise would be costly and prone to disease (Smith, 1999). Dr. Michael Rybolt, director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the National Turkey Federation, put forth a similar argument (Smith, 2008). Predictably, most individuals invested in the livestock industry support this viewpoint.
The use of antibiotics to promote growth and prevent diseases is not necessary. In Denmark, the government’s strict antibiotic policy has had very little impact on the nation’s pork industry. Although the mortality rate increased from 1994 to 2004, it returned to the levels in 1992, the last year antibiotics were used (Levy, 2014). Of course, without the chronic use of antibiotics, some animals will die of diseases, but as long as they are kept in clean environments and are on healthy diets the majority of the animals will survive. Outbreaks will occur, and will be addressed on a case-by-case basis. I propose, to stay consistent, Gahwiler also take low doses of antibiotics every day to prevent a possible sickness.
This unfortunate phenomena is still superable, but has reached a critical level. With global consumption of antibiotics projected to increase by two-thirds by 2030, it is time for the U.S to join the ranks of countries who practice responsible agriculture. You must not wait to see your children playing in medical masks to act. While antibiotic use in the animal industry is not the sole cause of the rise of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, the practice weakens your ability to protect yourself when you are most vulnerable. This continuous, cyclical battle has gone on long enough. The FDA is not currently regulating the use of antibiotics, and until recently has even approved the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. Moreover, even if the 2013 guidelines become mandatory, there are loopholes that allow for the use of antibiotics for disease prevention (Nelson, 2014). The FDA and the animal agricultural industry are not responding to the will of the people. Activists, schools, environmental organizations, and even other countries are demanding an end to this ludicrous practice, yet the demands are unheeded.
Fortunately, organizations like the Urban School Food Alliance are successfully fighting antibiotic raised animal products by banning them from millions of children’s lunches (Wood, 2014). Maybe it is time you ban them in your own home.
The stage has been set, and the script calls for action. It has now almost been 40 years since the FDA brought attention to antibiotic use in farms, and here we are still struggling against big business interests. It is time to take matters into our own hands. It is unacceptable for the majority of Americans to not be able to afford to purchase foods raised safely and ethically. Many do not even have the option to purchase antibiotic-free meats at a local supermarket. When we do have foods labeled antibiotic-free available for purchase, we cannot be sure of the validity of the statement. This was the case with Tyson’s “raised without antibiotics” campaign (Patton, 2010).
Alexander Fleming, the Nobel Prize winner who discovered the miracle of penicillin, warned us of this day, “The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non- lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant” (1945). As he prophesied, the ignorant man can, and most likely will, purchase antibiotics at the store, whether they know it or not. In short, the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics cannot be tolerated because it is unethical and potentially life threatening. To succeed in the battle against antibiotic resistant bacteria there has to be mass consensus, for each must do their part for the rest of society and future generations. In the United States, you vote with your dollar, and today is Election Day. Proudly cast the ballot as you boycott the largest perpetrator of human and animal rights violations in the country.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/threat-report-2013/pdf/ar-threats-2013-508.pdf#page=11
Center for Responsive Politics. (2013). Annual lobbying on agricultural services. Retrieved from http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/indusclient.php?id=A07&year=2015
Fleming, A. (1945). Penicillin. Retrieved from http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/ medicine/laureates/1945 /fleming-lecture.pdf
Food & Water Watch. (2015). Antibiotic resistance 101. Retrieved from http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/Antibiotic_Resistance_101_2014.pdf#_ga=1.154879672.1409144757.1441539128
Humane Society of the United States. (2009). An HSUS report: Human health implications of non-therapeutic antibiotic use in animal agriculture
Levy, S. (2014). Reduced antibiotic use in livestock: How Denmark tackled resistance.
Environmental Health Perspectives. (2014). 122(6), A160. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/10.1289/ehp.122-A160
Nelson, R. (2014). FDA action on animal antibiotics could still have loopholes. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 14(5), 376-377. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/10.1016/S1473-3099(14)70761-3
Patton, S. (2010). Tyson foods settles suit over antibiotic labeling. Arkansas Business, 27(3), 11.
Schuff, S. (2012). FDA nixes ‘production’ use of antibiotics. Feedstuffs, 84(16), 1.
Smith, R. (1999). Antibiotic bans, regulations may stop development of drugs. Feedstuffs, 71(13), 1.
Smith, R. (2009). Antibiotics called vital, safe. Feedstuffs
Smith, R. (2009). Antibiotics called vital, safe: In a letter to Obama’s policy adviser, 20 organizations say antibiotics are critical to the health and welfare of livestock and poultry and are not responsible for resistant bacteria. Feedstuffs, 81(34), 9.
Wood, D. (2014, 12/11; 2015/8). Why 3 million school children will no longer receive antibiotic- laced chicken. The Christian Science Monitor