Antibiotics are overused, and as a direct result drug-resistant bacteria are developing that sicken and kill people (they are fatal in 30-60% of cases). This is old news. Doctors have responded by prescribing antibiotics less often and by emphasizing to patients the importance of taking all the pills prescribed to them. (If you don’t finish all your antibiotics, start doing so as of right now. Don’t be one of those cretins who stops taking antibiotics because they “feel better.” You’re murdering antibiotics and aiding and abetting superbugs, and none of us appreciate it.)
What you may not have heard is that the antibiotics prescribed to people are just the tip of the superbug problem. Almost 80% of antibiotics administered in the United States are given to animals raised for food. Factory farms administer antibiotics to cows, pigs, and chickens preventatively (because the conditions they live in are so gross it’s hard to imagine they won’t get sick) and to foster unnaturally fast growth (because the more meat per day per animal, the more money for agribusiness).
28.8 million pounds of antibiotics are sold every year in the U.S. to feed to animals raised for food. Compare that to seven million pounds sold for administration to human beings.
The numbers make clear what we have to do: clean up factory farms so that animals aren’t trapped in filth so disgusting it would make them ill without medication, and give antibiotics only to animals who are sick. Both of these fixes require government to regulate agribusiness, which it is notoriously loathe to do.
Industry is trying to stave off government regulation by giving the appearance of solving the problem itself. For instance, according to Reuters, “the poultry industry [says] it already has ratcheted down ‘by a large margin’ its use of antibiotics.” But self-regulation is never the right (i.e. effective/remotely successful) answer for agribusiness. The same Reuters article reports that “Bernadette Dunham, director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, noted voluntary efforts to reduce antibiotic use and said, ‘We believe additional steps are necessary to have a real impact on this problem.’”
Doctors favor regulation of antibiotics on factory farms. The American Medical Association endorsed a bill to reduce the amount of antibiotics agribusiness feeds to animals they raise for food (see below for more on the bill, known as PAMTA). The AMA’s newspaper quoted Dr. Brad Spellberg, associate professor of medicine at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, California, as saying, “I’ve seen patients die of treatable infections. I’ve told their family, ‘I have no medicine to use.’ This is a catastrophic public health crisis. I don’t know how else to put it.”
The government knows what’s going on. The Food and Drug Administration acknowledged in 2010 that routinely feeding antibiotics to animals raised for food “is not in the interest of protecting or promoting public health.” But it has taken no action.
In 2009 Representative Louise Slaughter (D, NY) introduced PAMTA, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which would have phased out the use of “medically important antibiotics” for non-medical purposes on factory farms. The bill did not make it into law. If it ever does, it would accomplish one of the necessary reforms: not giving antibiotics to animals who are not sick; unfortunately, it would do nothing to clean up factory farms to prevent animals from becoming sick.
You can help support PAMTA: sign the pro-PAMTA petition, and call your Representative and Senators to ask them to help introduce and co-sponsor it.
A win on PAMTA would still leave the problem of repulsive and corrosive conditions on factory farms. According to PETA, “[T]he reason why antibiotics are fed to animals on factory farms is to keep them from dying in the filthy, crowded conditions that farmers force these animals to call home. Factory farms are prime breeding grounds for potentially deadly bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter, and the conditions are so putrid that millions of animals die within a matter of weeks before they are even sent to slaughter, despite being shot up with drugs. Imagine how few would survive without them.” The best way to clean up meat, dairy, and egg factories: Go veg and put them out of business. It’s a matter of life and death not just for the animals, but for you too.