Citing an increased incidence of foodborne illness outbreaks caused by antibiotic-resistant pathogens, public health advocates are again ratcheting up pressure on Congress to limit routine, subtherapeutic antibiotic use in agriculture.

At back to back briefings on Capitol Hill late last week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Center for a Livable Future presented a panel of experts to House and Senate staffers with a straightforward message on whether the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is a human health issue: “the science is clear.”

“The science is so clear that the political pressure on the FDA won’t be able to keep us from moving forward,” said founding director of the Center for a Livable Future, Robert Lawrence, a professor of environmental health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and a professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “The pharmaceutical and animal industries continue to deny the scientific evidence. We believe that the science is clear.”

At the meetings, dozens of staffers were briefed on a new white paper put out by CSPI focused on these so-called superbugs and foodborne illness outbreaks. CSPI reported that in 2011, 167 illnesses, 47 hospitalizations and one death were linked to antibiotic-resistant foodborne pathogens.

Two of the outbreaks were connected to ground turkey — one contaminated with Salmonella Hadar and one with Salmonella Heidelberg — and one outbreak was connected to ground beef contaminated with Salmonella Typhimurium. “All of those bacteria were resistant to treatment from several antibiotics that are critically important to human medicine, including drugs in the penicillin, cephalosporin, and tetracycline families,” CSPI reported.

The white paper also noted that since 2000, 38 outbreaks tied to resistant pathogens sickened 20,064, hospitalized 3,108 and killed 27 — a count that includes an “enormous” 1985 outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium caused by milk, which sickened 16,659, hospitalized 2,777, and killed 18.

“Antibiotics are the crown jewels of modern medicine, and they are critical to treating diseases in both humans and farm animals,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “We must not continue to jeopardize the effectiveness of these drugs by using them recklessly for non-therapeutic uses on farms and in animal factories. Otherwise, consumers may face longer illnesses, more hospitalizations, and more fatalities when exposed to resistant strains of common foodborne pathogens.”

CSPI quoted World Health Organization’s position on the issue from last year: “WHO has long recognized that antibiotic use in food animals, which seems to outweigh antibiotic use for human therapy in many countries, contributes importantly to the public health problem of antibiotic resistance.”

In the United States, around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold are given to food animals each year.

At the briefings, public health advocates called on Congress to pass legislation to limit antibiotic use in agriculture, by passing the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), and asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to take greater leadership on the issue.

“I would just love to see the United States taking a lead on this issue and show global leadership like we do on so many issues,” said Lance Price, an associate professor at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Arizona. “On this one, we are lagging far behind the rest of the world. All the warning signs are there…and the good science is there and we’re doing nothing. It’s a shameful thing. I hope that we can turn this and start taking the lead.”

  • M. “Mike” Mychajlonka, Ph. D.

    This article should also point out that, without the possibility of effective antibiotic prophylaxis, surgery for a whole range of human maladies would be far more dangerous than it is now.
    Sometime back in the seventies, when I was an antibiotic researcher engaged in the discovery of new antibiotics, I heard a talk on the subject of antibiotic resistance. One graph stood out then and is still relevant today. The X-axis was expressed as tons of a given antibiotic used per year in a given area. The Y-axis was expressed as the frequency of microbes found to be resistant to that same antibiotic in the same area. The relationship was a straight line with a respectable correlation coefficient, whose exact value I have since forgotten. The point is that the science on this issue has been in place for quite a long time. Why then, has the meat industry chosen to make use of antibiotics similar enough to those used for humans that their use in food animals contributes to the development of antibiotic resistance of interest to humans?
    Antibiotics cleared for use in humans are expensive. Their cost can be in the same ballpark as the price (per ounce) of silver or gold bullion. This price-potential has long been an incentive to pharmaceutical companies to design patentable, “me-too” variants of proven performers, but it has also spawned efforts to create whole new antibiotic classes or families, most of which were, for one reason or another, never approved for use in humans. Toxicity was a common reason for lack of approval.
    I would think that the definition of toxicity for an animal going to be slaughtered in a few weeks for its muscle mass would be very different from the definition of toxicity in humans, whose average life spans the better part of a century. If the meat producers consider antibiotic supplements to be crucial to their operations, have any of them ever made a systematic study of antibiotic development history in order to identify antibiotic families not approved for human use that could, nevertheless, work in animal processing facilities without invoking microbial antibiotic resistance to the antibiotics upon which we humans depend?

  • Michal Vaughn

    How long are we going to discuss this before action is taken? The GAO discussed antibiotic resistant pathogens back in the 1990’s!
    Various interests, with their money and lobbyists, are not going to say “OK, we give up.” This is big business, with deep pockets. Our government – the protectors of big business – has failed to protect us, and will continue to fail.
    Change will only come from a grass-root, community effort that disseminates information to the masses. Businesses will only change if they know their profits are in jeopardy.

  • Michael Vaughn

    “The Department agrees that steps need to be taken to decrease the use in agriculture of antibiotics that contribute to the development of resistant strains of human pathogens… We believe that preventative action is needed now, not at some time in the future.” GAO, April 1999

  • Farmer with a Dell

    Since “back in the seventies”, since “back in the 1990’s”, since the development of sulfonamides almost a century ago…but after all that time and all that evil despicable conspiratorial abuse the sky still has not fallen. I just looked and the sky doesn’t even appear to be fractured. It isn’t even sagging. I checked under your beds and in your closets — no boogiemen, not one. Maybe you will eventually outgrow your irrational fear of the grown-up work-a-day world of global food production. Until then maybe keep your Batman nitelites blazing? The real world is imperfect — we’re not gonna read you fables or sing you lullabies. We will keep food on your tables, however. You’re welcome.

  • Michael Vaughn

    The sky has already fallen. Every foodborne disease outbreak, every death related to antibiotic resistant bacteria, every parent who lost a child to E. coli or salmonella is a sign of a food system that is broken. Yes, we need food on our tables, but we should be the ones to dictate how that food is grown. But some are blinded by the bright glow of green funneled into their bank accounts… I do not blame the hard working farming families; they are victims like the rest of us. It is the large conglomerates – companies without conscious – that have duped us all, along with our government, who by the way, is supposed to protect us from such harm. That is one of their job descriptions. Remember, we are the customer here. We are the ones that put food on YOUR table. This is a symbiotic relationship.

  • B Ziek

    My brother died in January. His death was due to organ failure brought on by antibiotic resistant bacterial infections. After surgery in May, antibiotic resistant bacteria caused an infection. That infection was followed by infections caused by four OTHER kinds of antibiotic resistant infections. Weakened by 14 surgeries and uncountable procedures in the next seven months and rounds of Antibiotics of Last Resort – yes, that’s what they call them – his kidneys, then his liver failed, his heart weakened and he succumbed. Yes, folks, this is the new face of surgery in this country. It is upon us. Wake up. Write to your Congress people and tell them to stop working for those with a financial interest in using antibiotics in raising your meat – big food, big pharma and the USDA & FDA. Tell them to start working in the interest of the PEOPLE of this county.