Get Those Antibiotics Out of My Hamburger!

Because of routine antibiotic use in agriculture, bacteria like Salmonella and Campylobacter that cause food poisoning are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics. Resistant infections can result in more severe illnesses and more deaths than infections that can be treated with antibiotics. The American Medical Association (AMA) recently added its authoritative voice to an increasingly global call for an end to the routine use of antibiotics in agriculture. With the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unwilling, or unable, to act, our medical arsenal is rapidly being depleted of one of its chief weapons in the fight against food-borne illness.

Farmers started feeding low levels of penicillin and other common antibiotics to livestock decades ago because the drugs appeared to help animals kept in crowded, dirty "factory farms" grow faster. But when animals are given low doses of antibiotics, only some of the bacteria are killed. The stronger, more resistant bacteria survive, multiply, and pass on their strength and resistance to future generations. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70 percent of antibiotics used in this country are given to animals for growth promotion and other non-medical uses. That's a lot of pigs, chicken, and cattle eating the antibiotics you might need one day to treat your children.

Last month, the AMA adopted a resolution urging that the non-medical use in animals of antibiotics should be terminated or phased out. The AMA's position aligned it with the World Health Organization, American Public Health Association, and a growing list of physicians, scientists, veterinarians, and -- importantly -- parents who want that use to stop. But the AMA's reward for issuing responsible advice was to be blasted by the Animal Health Institute (AHI), which represents companies that produce animal drugs. Belittling the evidence for the AMA's action as "simply not true," AHI ignores compelling scientific studies that have accumulated over the past 30 years.

A multi-agency task force, led by the Centers for Disease Control, recently developed an action plan to combat anti-microbial (antibiotic) resistance. Several measures addressed the agricultural uses of antibiotics, including implementation of the FDA's framework for reevaluating currently approved veterinary anti-microbial drugs. Unfortunately, the government's action plan, which has been widely recognized as a near-comprehensive plan for reducing resistance, has yet to receive any funding.

Current laws make it almost impossible for the FDA to prove that using antibiotics as growth promoters can endanger the health of people. That is why new legislation is needed to shift that burden of proof where it belongs -- to the drug and agricultural industries. Instead of forcing the FDA to prove that agricultural uses of antibiotics are unsafe, a new law is needed to ban the drugs unless the manufacturer can prove they are safe. Attacking the problem from a different direction, Congress also should provide financial incentives to poultry, hog, and cattle operations that use fewer antibiotics.

Further information gathering and research is important. But we should not endanger patients' health as we slowly amass more data. There is overwhelming research to justify serious concern -- and decisive action -- now.

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