Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, is calling for a major reduction in the use of antibiotics in food animal production because their overuse promotes the spread of drug-resistant superbugs and makes antibiotics less effective for people
Consumers Union called attention to the overuse of antibiotics on farms during the Center For Disease Control and Prevention’s “Get Smart About Antibiotics Week” (November 12-18), which aims to raise awareness about how growing antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s most pressing public health threats.
The CDC is emphasizing the need for doctors and patients to work together to improve antibiotic use in order to preserve these critical medications for the future.
“Doctors and patients need to be much more careful about how they use antibiotics if we’re going to preserve their power,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union. “But we also need to get smart about the overuse of antibiotics in food animals. It’s time to stop the daily feeding of antibiotics to healthy food animals which makes these life-saving medications less effective for people.”
In 2010, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, Director of the CDC, noted that “there is strong scientific evidence of a link between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.” Numerous health organizations, including the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, Infectious Disease Society of America, and the World Health Organization, agree and have called for significant reductions in the use of antibiotics for animal food production.
Some 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on food animals, mostly to make them grow faster or prevent disease in crowded and unsanitary conditions. As a result of large scale use of antibiotics in livestock production, most of the bugs that are vulnerable to the antibiotics are eventually killed off, leaving behind superbugs that are immune to one or more of the drugs. These superbugs spread on the farm and beyond, contributing to antibiotic resistance in hospitals and our communities.
According to the CDC, antibiotic resistance is leading to higher treatment costs, longer hospital stays, and unnecessary deaths. The CDC estimates that nearly 100,000 people die from infections they pick up in the hospital every year. The vast majority are caused by bacteria that have developed resistance to the antibiotics used to treat them.
Antibiotic-resistant superbugs from the farm are showing up on meat and poultry and causing serious illness and even death. Consumer Reports found in 2010 that two-thirds of the chicken samples it tested were contaminated with salmonella or campylobacter or both and that more than 60 percent of those organisms were antibiotic-resistant.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked drug companies and livestock growers to voluntarily eliminate growth promotion uses of antibiotics over the next three years. Consumers Union has long urged the FDA to take stronger action and has called on the agency to restrict the use of antibiotics in food animals to the treatment of veterinarian-diagnosed sick animals only.
In June, Consumers Union launched its Meat Without Drugs campaign to encourage grocery stores to move away from selling meat and poultry raised on a steady diet of antibiotics. The consumer group is initially targeting Trader Joe’s, the national specialty grocer, because it already offers some antibiotic-free meat and poultry and has taken recent stands in support of other sustainable purchasing practices.
“The threat to public health from the overuse of antibiotics in food animals is real and growing,” said Halloran. “Trader Joe’s can be a leader in the campaign to protect public health and preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics by selling only meat raised without drugs.”
The Meat Without Drugs campaign, which includes more than a dozen consumer, environmental, and animal welfare organizations, has presented Trader Joe’s with a petition signed by more than a half million consumers urging the grocer to stop selling meat and poultry raised on antibiotics. Trader Joe’s has been unwilling to meet with Consumers Union to discuss the issue.
Consumers Union also supports Representative Henry Waxman's plan to introduce legislation in Congress to require the FDA to give the public more detailed information about the use of antibiotics in food animals. Right now there is little reliable data on the amount and type of antibiotics that are used for each category of food animal. Among other things, Waxman proposes to require drug manufacturers to disclose to the FDA how their antibiotics are used on the farm by determining which animals the drugs are given to and for what purpose.
For more information, see Consumers Union’s fact sheet on how the overuse of antibiotics in food animals threatens public health.