Des Moines Register editorial: “Antibiotics make hogs fatter; humans don’t matter”

Editorial: Antibiotics make hogs fatter; humans don’t matter

The Register’s editorial 10:39 a.m. CDT August 28, 2015

In 1942 the first American patient was treated with penicillin. The use of antibiotics was a major milestone in medicine and human health. Whether a soldier wounded in battle, a teenager with bacterial meningitis or a senior undergoing a total hip replacement, these drugs frequently mean the difference between life and death. We cannot underestimate their value.

And we cannot underestimate the adaptability of bacteria. Those pesky little microbes eventually become resistant to antibiotics. The more we use the drugs, the faster that resistance develops. Each year thousands of Americans die from infections that cannot be effectively treated. So-called "super bugs" are resistant to all or many existing antibiotics.

Overusing and misusing the drugs contribute to the problem. Doctors have been repeatedly encouraged to prescribe them only when necessary and appropriate. But the vast majority of antibiotics used to treat humans — known as "medically necessary" — are also given to food-producing animals, including chickens and cows.

Farmers and feed producers mix low doses into water and feed to promote growth and prevent diseases in livestock facilities. Using millions of pounds of antibiotics each year in animals ultimately jeopardizes human health. Resilient bacteria can move from animals to humans, making it more difficult to treat our infections.

So shouldn’t the goal be to use fewer antibiotics or ban their use in food animals altogether? That’s what many scientists have been saying for years.

But the agriculture and pharmaceutical industries have powerful lobbies. Drug company profits and growing fatter hogs are given priority over human health in this country. Instead of limiting use in livestock, the federal government tinkers around the edges of the issue, asking drug makers to revise labels or producers to voluntarily phase out the use of specific drugs.

Meanwhile, sales of medically-necessary drugs to the livestock industry rose 3 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the FDA. Between 2009 and 2013, those sales increased 20 percent. More, not fewer, antibiotics are being used.

Which animals are receiving which drugs and for what? It’s anyone’s guess. Drug companies are required to report the amount of antibiotics they sell for animal use, but federal regulators and the public have no idea where these drugs end up. That makes it impossible to track and understand links between the use of drugs and trends in resistance.

Now the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering a rule that would require drug companies to report more "species-specific" information about antibiotic use in livestock and poultry. The agency has received thousands of comments in support of the rule, including one from the founders of La Quercia. The Norwalk-based company buys more than 2 million pounds of pork annually from antibiotic-free producers and sells prosciutto and other cured meats to markets and restaurants around the nation.

"The proposed rule would close a key gap in our knowledge of antibiotics sold for use in food animal production, including in the commodity market, by requiring drug companies to estimate sales by species," wrote Herb and Kathy Eckhouse.

Yes, the FDA should implement the rule. But that is not necessarily a major victory for public health. While it is beneficial to collect this information, the rule does nothing to directly reduce the amount of antibiotics used in animals. It’s the kind of tinkering that has been going on for decades.

It has been nearly 40 years since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration first proposed revoking some antibiotics in animal feed. In 2003 the World Health Organization said feeding antibiotics to farm animals harms human health and the Institute of Medicine advocated banning them for growth promotion. Scores of scientists have said we should phase out the use of antibiotics in animal farming.

Yet Congress does nothing, the FDA is mired in the minutia of a rule on reporting drug sales and livestock producers are buying more antibiotics, according to the FDA. All this while more Americans are dying from resistant infections.