Experts say there is overwhelming scientific evidence linking the continued use of antibiotics in food animals to rising antibiotic resistance in humans. If the FDA was required to hold hearings on the issue, drug manufacturers would have to prove that giving antibiotics to food animals for non-medicinal purposes is safe.
Keeve Nachman, PhD, a food production and public health researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, calls the decision a tremendous disappointment and a setback for public health.
Studies show that the practice of feeding antibiotics to animals for purposes other than treating or controlling disease unnecessarily contributes to the development of bacteria that are resistant to drugs, such as penicillin and tetratcyclines, used for treating common infections in humans.
“Penicillin and tetracyclines are necessary and commonly prescribed antibiotics used to treat a variety of infections in people. If they lose their effectiveness, many infections that used to be easily treatable will become far more dangerous and costly to treat,” said Nachman.
Nachman directs the Food Production and Public Health program at the Center for a Livable Future and is on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. An expert on the public health and environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, Nachman’s research centers on the human health risks posed by drugs used in food animal production, including antibiotics and arsenicals.
Why are antibiotics used in animal feed?
Once antibiotics were discovered to be an anti-microbial agent some 50 years ago, the livestock and poultry producers found it was a growth-promoting agent that, of course, increased their bottom line. What became the norm was the regular use of antibiotics in animal feed for increased efficiency and growth rate rather than to combat specific diseases in the animals.
But, according to a conclusion reached by researchers at the University of Delaware almost two decades ago, "The use of antibiotics in animal feed presents a long-term health hazard to humans by promoting antibiotic resistance in pathogens."
"After animals have been fed antibiotics over a period of time, they retain the strains of bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics. These bacteria proliferate in the animal. Through interaction, the resistant bacteria are transmitted to the other animals, thus forming a colonization of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The bacteria flourish in the intestinal flora of the animal, as well as, in the muscle. As a result, the feces of the animal often contain the resistant bacteria. Transfer of the bacteria from animal to human is possible through many practices. The primary exposure of humans to resistant bacteria occurs in farms and slaughterhouses. Humans clean the feces, which contain the bacteria, of the animals on farms. During the cleaning process, humans may get bacteria on their body and hands. If the body or hands are not properly cleaned, the bacteria could be ingested by the person. Likewise, in slaughterhouses, during slaughter, the intestine is severed. Resistant bacteria are exposed to slaughterhouse workers, which could get the bacteria on their bodies and hands. Transmission occurs when the bacteria is ingested. Along with the previous sources of contamination, humans can get infected by eating meat from animals with resistant bacteria. Even though cooking reduces the survival of the bacteria, some may still survive and infect the human. ...An infected individual may also be admitted to a hospital for treatment. Treatment may not work in drug resistant bacteria, therefore, identifying a drug resistant infection. Bacteria is transmitted to other patients via the hospital environment or health care worker's hands. After transmission, the bacteria will colonize in several of the patients. Colonization in other patients with other resistant bacteria can produce bacteria with multi-drug resistance. Once the patients recover, they are discharged into the community. These patients could potentially infect several community members. Multiple infection could potentially produce a supergerm which is resistant to many drugs due to resistance sharing between bacteria."
While organizations and advocacy groups are trying to promote the proper use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, groups such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Chicken Council and the National Pork Producers Council have maintained that "the use of U.S. FDA-approved antibiotics in animals has been verified in scientific studies...as providing a critical, first line of defense to keep our nation's food supply safe and secure."
So, while the sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in meat animals has been banned in the European Union and Canada, the United States isn't doing anything to disrupt its use. And an organized movement by consumers to resist the consumption of meat, affecting the producers' bottom lines, apparently isn't going to happen any time soon either.