November 28, 2010

The Shame and Scandal of Our Mismanagement of Antibiotics

The public has so many problems to think about concerning food that one hesitates to raise another problem, but there is currently  a law before Congress that could have the most valuable long-term impact on our health. This is the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), a bill that would ban the use of seven classes of medically important antibiotics in livestock and poultry.

The use of antibiotics in farm animals began some time shortly after the Second World War.  While there are good reasons for using antibiotics on farm animals, there are some very bad reasons.  These include using antibiotics  to promote growth in the animals,  and as a sub-therapeutic method to mask poor husbandry. No one knows why, but antibiotics cause cows to grow faster.  A cow which traditionally took four years to reach slaughter weight, may reach reach slaughter weight in eighteen months, if fed antibiotics.  This can save the farmer substantial money in feed and care.  Additionally, farms which raise their cows and chickens according to the CAFO system (Confined Animal Feed Operation) continually  face conditions which threaten disease  outbreaks because they are controlled by constantly feeding  antibiotics to the animals.  The dangerous  effect of this “industrialized farming” of animals is that it weakens the use of antibiotics for human health and increases what has come to be called antibiotic resistant bacteria.

My first introduction to this problem was reading Orvile Schell’s book, Modern Meat, published in 1983, while working on an article for a local magazine. Through his book, I was introduced to  the work of Dr. Stuart Levy of the Department of Microbiology at Tufts University, who heads the Levy Lab---The Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance, and who probably knows  everything you never wanted to know about  microbial life.  In an interview I asked him why we couldn’t just assume that medicine can continually discover new drugs and stay ahead of drug resistance. “Up to a point,” he said “but we don’t know what that point is.   Doctors now often feel they are racing to find the next effective antibiotic for a patient  with pneumonia recovering from a heart operation.  Medicine can perform astounding surgery which often goes to waste because of a bacterial infection we have no antibiotic for.”
Since 1983, there have been continual calls to stop the overuse of antibiotics on farm animals.   In 1985, The Harvard University Medical School Health Letter headlined its article: “Antibiotics and Life Stock: Feeding A Controversy.”  In January, 2001, Science Magazine  dedicated its editorial to the problem.  In 2006,  the European Union banned the use of antibiotics as a growth promotant,  as well as the use of those antibiotics useful in human health.  Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has sent emails to its members asking them to contact their  representatives to pass PAMTA.  The Union for Concerned Scientists has some excellent articles on the subject.   Several large meat and chicken manufacturers in the United States, such as  McDonald's,  Tyson  Perdue,  Foster, and Gold Kist have volunteered to stop using antibiotics for growth promotion.
But this may be too little and too late, and  our government remains timid in passing the legislation to end the promiscuous use of antibiotics in animals---because the CAFO system of raising animals  depends on the massive use of antibiotics, and the CAFO system  would have to be dismantled.  That is not only an agricultural and human health  problem, but a political headache with powerful agricultural lobbies weighing in.

The use  of antibiotics in animals in 1985, when I wrote my first article,  was about 48%.  It is now about 70%   Yes,  the CAFO system must be dismantled with deliberate speed.    We have not even calculated the impact of global warming on the disease profile of the future, but global warming will inevitably cause changes in microbial life  that will cause changes in  our disease patterns that we have not dreamed of  in our pharmacology.   The discovery of antibiotics was a miracle that we have wasted on frivolous use, and to feed an irresponsible industry that was based on a wanton appetite for meat.   I am haunted by the implications of  Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse---that we may have eaten ourselves into death.

Copyright (c) Roberta Kalechofsky, 2010.