The Rise of 'Superbugs': Time to End a Decades-Long Problem

We've known since the mid-'70s that feeding animals antibiotics is dangerous—but we haven't changed our ways

For decades, livestock producers have given antibiotics to healthy farm animals to promote growth and compensate for unsanitary living conditions. But for the past 34 years, the Food and Drug Administration has known this practice creates drug-resistant bacteria that can pose a threat to human health, yet it has done almost nothing to stop it.

Over the years, while we've waited for FDA to take action, the threat posed by antibiotic-resistant diseases has only grown. That's why NRDC and a coalition of consumer groups filed a lawsuit against the FDA last month. Through the suit we hope to make the Agency follow the science and its own findings and finally issue rules governing the risky overuse of antibiotics on healthy animals.

Today, nearly 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to healthy farm animals. Drugs that can mean the difference between life and death in humans are routinely mixed into animal feed to make them grow faster and to compensate for unsanitary living conditions. It's a wasteful practice that squanders one of the most powerful tools of modern medicine.

While you and I have to get a doctor's prescription to use antibiotics, livestock producers do not. They can buy as many as they like and give cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys a steady diet of antibiotics in their feed, encouraging bacteria to adapt and become resistant to the drugs. Those bacteria don't stay on the farm. They spread to humans and can lead to so-called "superbugs" that are difficult or impossible to cure.

In April, for instance, 55,000 pounds of frozen raw turkey burgers had to be recalled because they had a Salmonella strain that the Centers for Disease Control says is immune to commonly prescribed antibiotics. Drug-resistant infections caused by these and other bacteria are estimated to cost Americans up to $26 billion every year.

This is not a new hazard. The issue has been around for my entire career, and yet the government has done little to address it.

I first heard about the dangers of using antibiotics in livestock production in the mid-1970s. When I started at NRDC, two of my colleagues were working on a report on the link between antibiotics in animal feed and the rise in drug-resistant infections.

Even the FDA issued its own finding on the problem back in 1977. Yet despite laws that compel the agency to act on its own findings when they show a practice poses a risk to human health, the FDA has failed to protect Americans from this threat. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times last week, "While the terrorist attacks of 2001 led us to transform the way we approach national security, the deaths of almost twice as many people annually have still not generated basic food-safety initiatives."

Industry pushback has appeared to paralyze the agency. In the 1980s, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees both requested that FDA delay its action on antibiotics because, they claimed, the science remained unclear. And the same faulty argument continues to be used today: Earlier this month, House Republicans attached a rider to the 2012 agriculture spending bill that would prevent the FDA from restricting antibiotics in healthy livestock, because some lawmakers claim the agency is not using sound science. The science on the issue has only gotten stronger since the 1970s.

Presented by

Frances Beinecke is the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an international environmental organization. She is also the author of Clean Energy Common Sense and recently served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

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