The misuse of antibiotics in animal feed is a major contributor to the rise of deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria — a development that is threatening the health of children in the United States and around the world, according to a report issued Tuesday by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
But the AAP report goes further than simply stating the problem. It also declares that the agricultural industry must end its routine use of antibiotic drugs to promote growth or prevent disease in animals. Such drugs should be used only to treat and control diagnosed infectious diseases, the organization says.
Yes, yes. I realize that the AAP is coming to this issue rather late. Many other health, as well as environmental, organizations have been trying for years to get people — particularly policymakers — to focus their attention on this urgent issue. But at least the AAP is speaking out now.
A serious problem
The danger that the misuse and overuse of antibiotic drugs in animals poses for humans is difficult to overstate. As the report points out, approximately 80 percent of the 40 million pounds of antibiotic drugs sold each year in the United States are used in animals raised for food, mostly to fatten up the animals so that they can get to market more quickly. And about 60 percent of the antibiotics given to animals, such as macrolides, streptogramins and tetracyclines, are considered important for human medicine.
That’s why the issue is so serious. Study after study has shown that the agricultural use of antibiotic drugs can lead to antibiotic resistance, and often quite rapidly. The resistant bacteria then spread to other animals and, eventually, to humans, including infants and children, through either the food supply or through environmental contamination of water used for drinking or recreation.
Nor do you have to live in rural areas to be exposed to water contaminated with resistant bacteria.
“Active antimicrobial agents have been detected in surface waters and river sediments, and resistance genes identical to those found in swine waste lagoons have been found in groundwater and soil microbes hundreds of meters downstream [from farms],” the AAP report points out.
Children most vulnerable
Public health officials around the world have declared antibacterial resistance one of the most serious current threats to public health. Here in the United States, more than 2 million people develop antibiotic-resistant infections each year, and a stunningly high number — 23,000 — die as a result.
Antibiotic-resistant infections also carry a heavy financial burden, costing the U.S. health-care system $21 to $34 billion a year, according to the AAP report.
In the U.S., children under the age of 5 have the highest incidence of most foodborne infections, particularly those involving Campylobacter, salmonella and E. coli.
That’s alarming. For, as the report points out, the CDC estimates that 25 percent of Campylobacter infections in the U.S. in 2011 were resistant to at least one antibiotic, up from 13 percent in 1997. Also, of the 1.2 million laboratory-confirmed cases of salmonella infections in 2013, about 5 percent were resistant to five or more classes of antibiotic drugs. And 3 percent were resistant to the antibiotic ceftriaxone, which is the first-line of treatment in children.
What consumers can do
If you want to take action on this issue, health and environmental activists say you can begin by buying meat and poultry labeled “organic” or “raised without antibiotics.” Be careful, however. As the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) points out, these labels are most reliable when accompanied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “Processed Verified” shield — or by an equally reliable verification from a private certifier, such as the Global Animal Partnership for Whole Foods.
GlPIRG also warns against relying solely on labels that say “natural,” “grassfed” or free-range,” as these terms do not necessarily mean the meat is antibiotic-free. (You’ll find PIRG’s handy guide for reading meat and poultry labels on the group’s website.)
But the problem of antibiotics being misused by the agricultural industry is not going to be solved only by consumers getting smarter about food labels and making different choices in the supermarket. For one thing, most people cannot afford organic meat, which usually sells at a premium.
As the AAP report points out, several bills that would curb the use of antibiotics in livestock are currently before Congress, including “The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act.”