More than 150 scientists and 50 farmers came out this week in support of stricter limits on antibiotics used in animal agriculture as part of a broader effort to tackle the “health crisis” caused by growing antibiotic resistance. Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finalized a voluntary guidance for farmers on the “judicious” uses of antibiotics in agriculture and asked veterinary drug makers to voluntarily phase out medically important drugs from being available over the counter — but public health advocates have not relented in their calls for stronger action on the issue. According to the most recent estimates, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used to raise food animals and many of these drugs are the same ones used in human medicine. Keeping Antibiotics Working coordinated the release of the statements, signed by scientists and farmers, on a Wednesday press call with Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY), a microbiologist who has fiercely advocated for a ban on subtherapeutic antibiotic usage in food animal production. In their statement, scientists from the leading universities and research institutions discussed the current science on antibiotic resistance and criticized the slow, voluntary nature of federal action to reduce agriculture’s contribution to the problem. “While the U.S. medical establishment is making strides in reducing unnecessary antibiotic use, the agricultural community is not keeping pace,” reads the statement, noting that both human medicine and animal agriculture are contributing factors. “The use of antibiotics for whatever purpose over time creates drug‐resistant strains of bacteria, thwarting successful treatment of infectious diseases. So, antibiotics should be used only when necessary.” The animal health industry and major animal agriculture interest groups argue that they support judicious use of antibiotics in food animal production and that the drugs are key to an efficient, affordable, safe food supply. They contend that there is very little, if any, direct link between drug use on farms and the superbugs causing health problems in people. The statement put out by scientists disagrees. They say animal agriculture has largely ignored the hundreds of scientific research articles that have showed that overuse in both humans and animals is linked to human diseases that are increasingly difficult to treat with antibiotics. According to the scientists, the strongest link between agricultural overuse and human health is recurring foodborne illness caused by resistant strains of Salmonella and Campylobacter. Recent research has also linked animal agriculture to  resistant E. coli infections and methicillin‐resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections. “We strongly urge an immediate end to the imprudent use of antibiotics in animal agriculture and call on the FDA and Congress to work together to make that happen,” concluded the document, which was signed by Donald Kennedy, Ph.D., of Stanford University and former editor-in-chief of Science, Stuart B. Levy, M.D., of Tufts University of Medicine and the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, Keeve Nachman, Ph.D, of Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and more than 150 other doctors, microbiologists, and researchers. The farmers and ranchers took a slightly different approach in their statement, explaining the issue from a more community- and small business-focused perspective. “We believe the imprudent use of antibiotics not only renders antibiotics less effective or ineffective for sick farm animals, it also threatens public health and the safety of our nation’s food supply,” read the statement. “We are concerned for the health of our customers, our neighbors, our employees, and our own families.” They argue that their farms and ranches prove that it is “not only possible but actually economically viable to produce meat, dairy products, and eggs that are safe to eat without continually dosing animals with drugs they don’t need.” The statement noted that operations can avoid the overuse of antibiotics though sound husbandry practices. “Many studies indicate that consumers are likely to come into contact with these dangerous bacteria through the meat they buy in their supermarket,” continues the statement. “News reports of such infections undermine consumer confidence in the safety of meat, poultry and dairy products. We only have to look at American consumers’ responses to recent disease outbreaks caused by contaminated spinach or apple juice to understand the business implications of outbreaks linked to food products derived from animals. Such outbreaks pose a real danger to our livelihoods.” The document was signed by Nicolette Hahn Niman, Bill Niman, and Paul Willis of Niman Ranch Pork Company, Russ Kremer of Heritage Acres Foods, Stephen McDonnel of Appleagate, Amanda Grace of Cedarland Farm, and more than 40 others. This story has been updated with links.

  • doc raymond

    Raised antibiotic free is a nice, niche market, but not sustainable to feed a hungry world and these farmers want to level the playing field by spreading false information. 45% of antibiotics uses as growth promoters are not even used in human medicine and another 53% are irrelevant in treating human illnesses with better alternatives available. This 53% consists of antibiotics like Bacitracin,an ointment in human medicine, Chlortetracycline and oxytetracycline, second choice treatment for acne and Chlamydia STDs, and penicillin, a med now limited to strep throat and syphillis therapy. That leaves 2% in the range of important to human medicine with no or few alternatives. Methicillin Ciprofloxacin, Vancomycin, Mefoxin, all aminoglycosides and most other antibiotic critical to human medicine are prohibited from any use in animals. The 80% is an inaccurate number to quote, and the FDA has cautioned using that number. But since the story does use it, I will point out that the number includes all antibiotics used in all animals, including pets and horses, and for therapeutic purposes as well as infection control and prevention. The low dose meds used as growth promoters that are under the attack constitute only 12% of total antibiotics used in animals and are primarily ionophores and the teracyclines.

  • Peter J

    So why did the World Health Organization dedicate its annual World Health Day in 2011 to combating the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Why did Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, state that, “In the absence of urgent corrective and protective actions, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, kill unabated”? Why did the World Health Organization state that the “effectiveness of critically important antimicrobials for human medicine should not be compromised by inappropriate over-use and/or misuse in the non-human sector”? Or does the World Health Organization have a vested interest in promoting nice, niche meat and livestock products, too?

  • Michael Bulger

    I believe it is because they understand the caveat that pathogens that have required resistance traits can apply those resistance traits to antibiotics related to, but not exactly the same as, the antibiotic that drove the growth of resistance.
    A pathogen that develops resistance to penicillin is really developing resistance to how penicillin attacks pathogens (maybe destroying pathogen cell walls or disrupting pathogen enzymes). So, if antibiotics in the same family (methicillin is related to penicillin, for example) attacks pathogens in a similar manner, the pathogen’s newfound resistance can plausibly render multiple pathogens ineffective. All of this has been understood for over 50 years. The animal drug industry and their attendants have just done a tremendous job exploiting the cautious nature of scientific systemization, and in doing so, have delayed preventative action.

  • doc raymond

    Peter, in the US antibiotics “Critically important…for human medicine” are either prohibited from use in animals, or limited to therapeutic use for disease only. For instance, the critically important cephalosporin class constituted only 0.2% of all animal antibiotic sales in 2010, aminoglycosides less than 1% and Ciprofloxacin was banned for use in poultry.