By Melinda Henneberger, Updated: Tuesday, October 22, 9:27 AM
The farm and pharmaceutical lobbies have blocked all meaningful efforts to reduce the use of antibiotics in raising livestock in America, a practice that contributes to a major public health risk, a study released Tuesday found.
The report says Congress has killed every effort to legislate a ban on feeding farm animals antibiotics that are important in human medicine. Not only that, but regulation of livestock feeding practices has grown weaker under the Obama administration, the study says.
“Our worst fears were confirmed,’’ said Bob Martin, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which issued the report. The Food and Drug Administration’s statistics, he said, show that fully 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in this country are fed to food animals.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report last month that found that 23,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections each year. The more a particular germ is exposed to antibiotics, the more rapidly it can develop resistance. Although the strongest factor contributing to resistance is overprescribing the drugs to humans, giving antibiotics to food animals adds to the problem, and consumer advocates have continued to push for tighter controls.
The study released Tuesday comes five years after a troubling report on raising livestock was issued by a Pew Charitable Trusts commission of top scientists and ethicists working through the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Industrial farms that are feeding animals antibiotics for breakfast, lunch and dinner are plumping them up at a terrible cost, the 2008 report said, making antibiotics ever-less effective in treating human disease as microbes grew more resistant.
FDA guidelines in the pipeline, Martin said, would require the industry to stop using antibiotics specifically to bulk up cows and other food animals but would continue to allow their use for “disease-control.” What constitutes disease-control is so loosely defined, however, that there would be “no change” in the use of antibiotics, Martin said.
“In a couple of areas, the Obama administration started off with good intentions. But when industry pushed back, even weaker rules were issued,” he said. “We saw undue influence everywhere we turned.”
In a response via e-mail Monday evening, an FDA spokeswoman wrote that “an important step the FDA is taking to address this issue is to phase out the use of medically important antibiotics in food animals for growth promotion and feed efficiency. FDA believes these drugs should be used only in situations where they are necessary for treating, controlling, or preventing a specifically identified disease, and only under the oversight of a veterinarian.”
The Johns Hopkins report, however, notes that the definition of “oversight by a veterinarian” has been changed and no longer means much.
The FDA says it has a strategy to “effectively phase out production uses of medically important antimicrobials” and “has worked closely with stakeholders, including the pharmaceutical industry, animal producers, veterinarians, consumer groups, and public health organizations to ensure the success of this strategy. However, FDA’s approach does not rule out future regulatory action to ensure the judicious use of these important drugs.”
The 2008 Pew report also focused on the environmental consequences of disposing of livestock waste and said regulators should identify and regulate the industrial farms that together are responsible for producing 500 million metric tons of waste a year in this country. Right now, Martin said, only about a third of these operations are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency: “We said, ‘Look, we’ve got to know where they are. They’re industrial in scale and ought to be regulated as such.’ ’’
And what came of that recommendation? “The Obama administration started an inventory process” in the spring of 2012, Martin said, “but under pressure, they backed off. I think they were worried about losing Iowa and Minnesota in the presidential race.”
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who is a microbiologist by training, has been trying for 14 years to get Congress to pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. “No way,’’ she said, is the Republican-controlled House going to take up her proposed legislation.
But the reluctance to regulate more strictly crosses party lines. Even when the Democrats controlled Congress, Slaughter said, “I never had more than 50 co-sponsors” for the bill.
With thousands of people a year dying of infections resistant to antibiotics, “this is a national emergency,” she said. “Scientists are saying strep throat is going to become a fatal disease” if resistance to antibiotics continues to spread.
Regulators, as well as lawmakers, have long given into industry pressure, according to Slaughter. In the 1970s, the FDA announced that the two classes of antibiotics used then in both human medicine and livestock production should not be routinely fed to animals, Slaughter said.
But the agency has been backpedaling ever since, she said, “because the lobbying on this is fierce.” The FDA and the Agriculture Department “were supposed to protect consumers” but instead protect producers, Slaughter added.
Cows, chickens and hogs, she said, are raised “in wretched, unspeakable conditions” but kept healthy through the use of antibiotics that “do make the animals fatter, and we all eat that junk.”
The report released Tuesday notes that when Congress has taken action, it has been to lessen farm safety regulations, rather than increase them. In 2011, Rep. Kristi L. Noem (R-S.D.) introduced the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act, which would have exempted farm dust from regulation by the EPA under the Clean Air Act. The bill passed the House but not the Senate, so it never became law.
“The effort was significant, because it exemplified the push for legislation that preempts agricultural reforms,” the report says.
“This effort was also notable,’’ the authors added, “because the EPA had not made any attempt to regulate farm dust.”