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.

The livestock industry thinks we cannot prove that a risk exists unless we trace specific bacteria from their animal origins through the food supply chain to people who get sick. That would be like requiring an eyewitness to prosecute every crime. Tara Smith, a microbiologist at the University of Iowa, says, "We have DNA from the crime scene that matches that of the suspect. At some point you have to accept that he is responsible. The bulk of the evidence is overwhelming."

And it is because of the evidence that the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the Infection Diseases Society of America, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and even the FDA all concur: Using antibiotics in healthy animals is a health threat for human beings.

Yet still the FDA is hesitating. In the near future, the agency will issue guidelines for using antibiotics in animal feedlots. Guidelines do not have the force of law; they are simply suggestions for voluntary actions that livestock producers could take. NRDC filed our lawsuit because we want the FDA to issue legally binding rules.

Such rules would not block producers from giving antibiotics to sick animals. Nor would they have a damaging impact on the industry. All 27 EU nations have already successfully stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion. Denmark, the world's largest pork exporter, ended the practice over a decade ago, and industry data have shown a sustained decrease in overall antibiotic use and the amount of drug-resistant bacteria found in livestock and meat products. At the same time, livestock production has grown and prices have remained stable.

The American National Academy of Sciences estimated in 1999 that if we were to take similar steps in the U.S. to eliminate all non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock, it would cost grocery shoppers less than $10 annually. That's less than $13.50 per year in today's dollars.

Nearly every time I give a talk, parents approach me with concerns about the safety of their children's food, including the aftereffects of the use of hormones and antibiotics. It doesn't have to be this way.

We can produce healthy, wholesome food and at the same time protect the effectiveness of life-saving medicines that doctors describe as "miracle drugs." We just need the government to take real action.

Image: Adrees Latif/Reuters