Bill to preserve human health would also elevate animal welfare
Thanks to antibiotics, you are 20 times less likely to die from a simple infection in 2009 than you would have been if you had lived before the discovery of antibiotics less than a century ago. Penicillin was the first antibiotic to be discovered, and was not even known to be medically useful until World War II. Since then, this revolutionary "miracle drug" has saved millions upon millions of lives. But now, reckless agribusiness policies could render penicillin and other antibiotics all but useless if we don't stop them.
Today, doctors can prescribe hundreds of different types of antibiotics to treat everything from skin infections and food poisoning to tonsillitis and STDs. But you know what happens when we use antibiotics when we don't really need them? Bacterial organisms evolve and become resistant to antibiotics, effectively neutralizing medicine's power to fight disease. And today, because of the irresponsible overuse and misuse of antibiotics, we face a crisis of epidemic proportions with the development of mutant superbugs — extremely hazardous bacterial strains that, through natural selection, have survived and grown so powerful that they cannot be stopped using conventional antibiotics.
Shockingly, most antibiotics in the U.S. are not given to sick people, but to animals on factory farms. It is estimated that 70% of all antimicrobials administered in this country (about 25 million pounds a year) are fed to livestock who are then eaten by people, making the population at large more vulnerable to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and less responsive to treatment. And it's not just meat eaters whose health and safety are compromised by the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture — vegans are vulnerable too, because pathogens and pharmaceutically-active compounds can be transmitted to us through animal feces that winds up in our food and water.
Why are farmers feeding antibiotics to herds and flocks of ostensibly healthy animals raised for meat, milk and eggs anyway? Well, because farm animals who start out healthy when they are born tend to get sick after spending some time densely packed together in dark, sunless cages or sheds wallowing in their own feces. Many farm animals are not born healthy because their genetic codes have been modified to give them physical characteristics that are market-friendly but inherently debilitating. These include chickens whose bodies grow so fast that their legs break underneath the weight; "designer" cows with massive swelling udders who produce ten times as much milk as their unmodified sisters; and humongous "double-muscled" cattle who look like they've been taking steroids. Factory farmers also administer antibiotics as a preventive measure against disease caused by farm animals' unnatural diet of pesticide-ridden corn and soy.
So farmers force animals to live in sickening conditions to increase profitability, and put antibiotics in their feed for two reasons: to accelerate their growth, and prevent them from simply dying of the infectious bacterial diseases that profligate in these darkened dens of feculence. And then, of course, when animals really do get sick, antibiotics no longer work properly because they've been taking them for so long that their bodies have developed an immunity.
Over time, factory farms become virtually perfect laboratories for the creation of new antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains: ideal breeding grounds where microbes can adapt and become totally new and more potent forms. One of the most deadly permutations brewed so far on the factory farm is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a disease transmitted from pigs to humans which now claims more lives in the U.S. — approximately 18,000 victims a year — than the AIDS virus. Symptoms of MRSA include massive pimples (that most commonly sprout on the face, under the arms, behind the knees, and on the butt), as well as fatal heart failure.
Ban the Insanity
To address the myriad problems described above, U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter introduced a bill last week called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009 (PAMTA for short). If passed, it would prohibit the sub-therapeutic use of seven classes of antibiotics on farm animals by amending the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. In addition to making antibiotics more effective in the treatment of human disease, decreasing the frequency and duration of hospital visits, and perhaps preventing a future superbug from causing the next Black Plague, PAMTA would save the U.S. an estimated $4 to $5 billion a year on healthcare costs.
Plus, it would force factory farms to treat their animals somewhat better, because without the convenient crutch of antibiotics to lean on, producers will have to improve living conditions for livestock just to get them to market. Like other industries, the meat-dairy-egg consortium has calculated "acceptable losses" into their financial equations. That is, it's much cheaper to crowd animals together and have a certain percentage of them die from stress, injuries and diseases than it is to make their environment more humane. Currently, 8.6% of farm animals die before slaughter: downed cows, pigs killed by swine flu, chickens dead from heart failure because their bodies grew too fast, so on and so on. That's 875 million animals a year.
If it were economical for factory farmers to lower that number, they would. And if they could make even more money by crowding even more animals together in smaller spaces and feeding them even more antibiotics, they would do that too. However, agriculture accountants know that there is a point of diminishing financial returns because, when too many animals die, it eats into profits.
Studies have proven that simply providing animals with a more sanitary environment does at least as much to prevent bacterial infection as the routine administration of non-therapeutic antibiotics. But if sub-therapeutic antibiotics were banned in agriculture and factory farms didn't improve animal welfare, many more of their "livestock" would die before slaughter. The industry will therefore have to provide animals, for all practical purposes, with healthier food and better living conditions based purely on fiscal considerations.
Use this Pew Charitable Trusts alert to urge your congressional representative to co-sponsor and support PAMTA. To have the most impact, customize the sample letter using your own words, and follow up with a quick phone call or letter to your legislator.