The reauthorization of the Animal Drug User Fee Act, which is quickly making its way through Congress, gives lawmakers a chance to address the growing threat of superbugs caused, in part, by open-ended use of antibiotics important to human medicine. They can use ADUFA as a vehicle to put duration limits on all medically important antibiotics used in food animals.
The majority of medically important antibiotics are sold for use on farm animals, rather than on people. And farmers often don’t give the antibiotics to treat sick animals; instead, they use the drugs prophylactically to prevent disease that can occur in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions.
When a doctor writes a prescription for antibiotics, it includes a set number of pills to take over a limited amount of time. That’s not usually the case when meat producers give antibiotics to their animals. Some antibiotics approved for use in food production have no defined durations of use or can be used for extended time periods. Such prolonged use gives resistant bacteria a chance to thrive as other bacteria die off over time.
Recent reports cite different forms of bacteria in both people and animals resisting colistin, an antibiotic that doctors prescribe when other treatment options fail. Bacteria don’t discriminate, they don’t respect borders, and they’re getting more resilient.
Researchers at Emory University found that a common type of resistant bacteria, Klebsiella pneumoniae, can mask resistance to colistin. So, Klebsiella pneumoniae can cause dangerous blood, soft tissue, and urinary tract infections, and doctors won’t know the drug isn’t working until it’s too late. Across the world, researchers in China have documented colistin-resistant Shigella flexneri, a form of bacteria that causes severe diarrhea and was discovered on a pig farm.
Health experts compare antibiotic resistance to climate change in its scope, but say it has quicker consequences. Experts predict that drug-resistant infections could kill 10 million people a year worldwide by 2050. That’s more annual deaths than cancer kills today. To avoid that fate, we need to stop overusing antibiotics immediately.
U.S. PIRG, the health and consumer advocacy group I work for, is trying to reduce the use of antibiotics in agriculture, which accounts for about 70 percent of medically important antibiotic sales in the U.S. The World Health Organization took aim at the routine use of antibiotics in agriculture in its latest recommendations. The global voice on health issues called for completely restricting the use of medically important antibiotics to prevent disease in otherwise healthy animals.
So far, the U.S. government has failed to adequately address antibiotic misuse in the food system. The Food and Drug Administration administered guidelines that prohibit antibiotic use for growth promotion, but continue to allow the routine use of antibiotics on animals that aren’t sick for prophylaxis.
The most progressive change in the United States has come from food companies responding to consumer concerns. Major chicken producers, most notably Perdue Farms, have phased the use of medically important antibiotics out of their production. McDonald’s, Subway, and KFC have already eliminated medically important antibiotic use in their chicken supply chains or are in the process of doing so. According to the latest Chain Reaction scorecard, an annual report from U.S. PIRG and its partners that grades restaurants based on antibiotics policies, 14 out of 25 chains have committed to phasing routine antibiotic use out of at least part of their meat supply.
These market-based actions seem to be having a positive effect. The sale and distribution of medically important antibiotics for food production in the U.S. dropped 14 percent in 2016, according to the Food and Drug Administration. That’s the first year-to-year decline in sales since recording began.
Although we’re seeing some hints of light at the end of the tunnel, we need much steeper reductions in antibiotic use and an end to the worst misuse of the drugs. Federal lawmakers have an opportunity to put those changes in motion right now.
Congress should include language in the Animal Drug User Fee Act reauthorization that limits the use of medically important antibiotics to 21 days. By doing that, we’ll give resistant bacteria less of a chance to thrive and spread.
Large-scale production of food animals without misusing antibiotics is not only feasible, it’s necessary to maintain the effectiveness of these lifesaving medicines for humans and animals.
It’s time our lawmakers act to preserve the effectiveness of lifesaving antibiotics.
Matthew Wellington is the director of the antibiotics program for U.S. PIRG, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works to protect consumers’ health and safety.