Discussion on the link between antibiotic resistance in humans and the routine, subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in food animal production rolls on. For the past several weeks, congressional staff working on food, agriculture, and health issues have heard from both both sides of the debate with a series of briefings on the issue.

antibiotic-resistance5-featured.jpgThe uptick in discussion on Capitol Hill comes in the wake of a February CBS Evening News broadcast criticizing the widespread use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. The meat industry has been actively pushing back against the criticism, partly fueled by concern it could build momentum for legislation that would ban the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed in an effort to curb growing antibiotic resistance in humans.

Consumer and public health groups, however, have been trying to capitalize on growing consumer awareness of antibiotic use to build just that momentum. “We’re excited this message is getting out,” Robert Guidos, vice president of public policy and government relations for the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) told Food Safety News.

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-N), the only microbiologist serving in Congress, authored the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, commonly known as PAMTA, to address what she believes is a growing threat to public health.

The bill would require that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), deny any new animal antibiotic drugs unless the federal government is certain the drugs will not contribute to antimicrobial resistance. The bill would also ban the routine, or nontherapeutic, use of antibiotics in food-producing animals.

“I cant stress enough the urgency of preventing the current stock of antibiotics from becoming obsolete,” Slaughter told an audience of Hill staffers last Wednesday in a briefing sponsored by scientific and public health groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the American Public Health Association (APHA).

“Resistant bacterial infections increase health care costs by $4 to 5 billion each year, a staggering amount. Seven classes of antibiotics certified by the Food and Drug Administration are considered to critical to humans,” said Slaughter, adding that every day 38 people needlessly lose their lives to resistant infections.

“Make no mistake, the bill would not infringe in any way, on the use of the drugs to treat a sick animal,” added Slaughter. “It simply prohibits their non therapeutic use unless the drug companies can prove the drugs do not promote antimicrobial resistance.”

Further fueling the discussion, an Op-Ed titled “Cows on Drugs” by former FDA commissioner Donald Kennedy appeared in the New York Times Saturday. Kennedy called on Congress to pass PAMTA, which he believes is 30 years overdue.”We don’t have the luxury of waiting any longer,” he wrote. 

The meat and feed industry, as well as the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), remain vehemently opposed to such a ban, and are actively engaging growing criticism. In a recent letter to CBS, several industry groups responded to the critical coverage, which they called “reckless and one-sided.”

“In fact, antibiotics are given to livestock strategically, when animals are sick, susceptible or exposed to illness. Modern livestock production facilities provide animals with an environment designed to keep them safe, healthy and comfortable,” read the letter, signed by over a dozen groups, including the American Meat Institute, the National Pork Producers Council, and the Association of Veterinarians in Turkey Production.

“Also, there’s no proof that antibiotic use on farms significantly increases resistant bacteria in humans. Since antibiotics have been used in livestock for half a century, if there was going to be an epidemic of resistance related to antibiotic use in agriculture, it would have occurred by now. The fact that it has not means that antibiotic use in animals is not a major risk to human health,” said the letter.

In its response, CBS said it respectfully disagreed and stood by the coverage. “Our reporting found decades of research in this country and abroad which link antibiotic resistance in humans to the use of antibiotics in food animal production.”

“The challenging thing about this issue of antibiotic resistant organisms in agriculture, and being spread by food, is that it is no longer a question of science,” said Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug, a book about the drug resistant staphylococcus aureus epidemic, who presented on the Hill last week.

“The scientific questions–does this happen, is agricultural antibiotic use causing it to happen, does it pose a threat to human health–have all been answered, and in each case the answer is Yes,” said McKenna. “The questions that have to be answered now are questions of politics, economics and competing commercial interests, and those are much, much stickier.”