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.