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Blair Horner: A New Fight To Protect The Public's Health

Last week, a blockbuster story ran in the New York Times: “Warning of ‘Pig Zero’: One Drugmaker’s Push to Sell More Antibiotics.”  The investigative report examined how the pharmaceutical industry is pushing the overuse and misuse of antibiotics on farm animals – in the case of the Times story, pigs.

Why should humans care?  Many of the antibiotics used on farm animals are ones that humans rely on too.  And the overuse of these antibiotics is fueling the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs.”

Farm animals get doused with antibiotics due to the dirty and stressful conditions in which they live. Those conditions help breed disease and raise the risk of infections.

Most people who hear that antibiotics are losing effectiveness think about doctors wrongly prescribing the drugs to humans.  Many physicians can and should make better decisions about antibiotic use in human health care.  However, in the United States, about two-thirds of the antibiotics that are considered important to human health actually are sold for food animal production.

Sick animals should be treated with antibiotics.  But often, as the Times reported, meat producers give the drugs to large numbers of animals that are not sick to prevent diseases commonly spurred by unsanitary, overcrowded, and stressful living conditions.  Compensating for industrial farming conditions is not an appropriate use of life-saving medicines.

Overusing antibiotics in any setting fuels the spread of drug-resistant bacteria. It’s no different on farms.  When animals receive regular doses of antibiotics it breeds resistant bacteria that can travel off farms via the meat itself, direct contact with animals, or through water and soil.  Those bacteria may find their way to people and infect them with illnesses that may not respond to available antibiotics.

The overuse of antibiotics has become such a worldwide problem that experts estimate that, unless something changes, deaths from antibiotics-resistant superbugs will exceed the number of cancer deaths.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 20 percent of antibiotic-resistant infections originate on farms.  They get into the world’s food supply and put humans at risk.

The harm is becoming more and more apparent. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that currently at least 23,000 Americans die from drug-resistant infections each year, but researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine think it could be seven times as many—up to 162,000 deaths annually.

In November 2017, the World Health Organization called on meat producers to stop using medically important antibiotics for routine disease prevention and to reserve these medicines for sick animals.

The movement is getting help from some unlikely heroes not noted for responding to health concerns – major fast food chains.  After hearing from consumers, McDonald’s, Subway, KFC and more have committed to reduce antibiotic use throughout their meat supply chains.  Health advocates are now calling on Wendy’s, the third largest burger chain in the U.S., to phase routine antibiotic use out of its beef supply chain.

State lawmakers in California and Maryland have placed restrictions on antibiotic use in food-producing animals. Now it’s time for New York’s elected officials to heed the warnings from medical experts.

New York state lawmakers can help address this health crisis by supporting legislation to limit antibiotic use.  State Sen. Kavanagh (Manhattan) and Assemblywoman Romeo (Rochester) recently introduced legislation that would place appropriate limits on the use of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals at farms across New York State. 

Their legislation will prohibit the routine use of medically important antibiotics to prevent disease and reserve the drugs solely to treat sick animals or to control a verified disease outbreak.

The way meat is produced should not undermine modern medicine.  As lawmakers head toward the end of the legislative session, they should act to protect both New York’s rich agricultural tradition and the public’s health.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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