Thursday, March 26, 2009

Congress Ponders Livestock Antibiotic Ban

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.

Phactory Pharming

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.


  1. Anonymous6:53 AM

    I'm not a supporter of Animal Rights, but this time you are indeed right.

    I have spent almost decade on this disaster, day after day: there at the beginning, with pigs and in pig country when the horror story started.

    We decided on a self-sufficient lifestyle and walked into a nightmare.

    The shame is that so much emphasis was placed on the over-prescription of antibiotics to humans, when bigger dangers lay with veterinary over use.

    There is little doubt that MRSA in pigs has been leaking into the hospitals for some years.

    There was a nasty mutation to a porcine circovirus in Britain in 1999 which caused an epidemic that required huge quantities of antibiotics to handle the consequences.

    MRSA in pigs was the result, usually the ST398 strain.

    The Dutch picked up the problem about four years ago and commendably made everything they knew public.

    Both circovirus and MRSA epidemics have now travelled the world along with accompanying cover-ups. It is quite a nasty situation - now coming to light in the USA.

    MRSA st398, mutated circovirus and various other unpleasant zoonotic diseases have now reached American pig farms probably via Canada.

    The people exposing the scandal in the US are to be commended.

    I have extensive records available to anyone researching the link and can often answer general questions quickly and accurately.

    Pat Gardiner
    Release the results of testing British pigs for MRSA and C.Diff now! and

  2. Thanks for posting this, as I wasn't aware of the legislation. I've contacted my members of Congress.

  3. Anonymous8:24 PM

    I am glad you posted this however I believe you are a bit harsh on producers and protocols. You bring up the European countries as a model of why we should remove antibiotics from feed, but what you failed to mention were many negative impacts on mortality (30% increase), increases in morbidity, and decreases in performance and average daily gain in weanling pigs as an example. Statistics show that there was also an economic loss of .5 to 1 U.S. dollar/pig due to the removal of Antibiotics. Sorry for a rhetorical question, but is it antibiotic abuse related to animal production? There is no way to prove the origin of antibiotic resistance with 100% accuracy. Avoparcin, an antibiotic used in poultry feeds, was linked to Vancomycin Resistant Enterococcus (VRE) in humans in Europe supposedly. However, in the U.S. avoparcin has never been used yet there is still VRE. Human abuse of antibiotics has a much higher likeliness of causing resistant forms to develop. I am not saying you are wrong and can see where You are coming from, and that public safety should not have a price. However, whenever the choice of antibiotics cut down choices of treatment to a select few antibiotics there is an increase in the selective pressure which may favor resistant strains of bacteria. The fact that you also condemn nutrition due to the use of unnatural feeds is troublesome to me. Just because hemlock is natural doesn't mean it is good for me. Major research in nutrition insures safe and efficient growth for animals (I'd gladly feed a cow cotton seed and peanut shells). Lastly, I do agree there are some "bad eggs" when it comes to industrial farming. However, that is the case for anything in this world. Producers use sound animal husbandry techniques everyday to insure efficient production, and the only way to have efficient production is to have an unstressed unharmed animal. I think you would agree if we are going to use these tools we should use them wisely. Judicious use coupled with sound management techniques ( yes things in industrial farms can always be done better) could insure that we curb the rate of bacteria becoming drug resistant. Thank You for posting this.

  4. Anonymous8:53 PM

    I really hope we can discuss this issue. I am a student at the University of Missouri and I would really like to hear why you have these view points? May I ask how much farm and animal production exposure you have ( that was not meant to be smug.....I am just curious)? Thank you for your time and when I mentioned the Europe Line in my previous post I was talking to Mr./Ms. Gardiner but it still has some good information.