Do you have any idea how many milligrams of antibiotics you take in a given year? Perhaps it might surprise you to learn that 50 million pounds of antibiotics are consumed annually in the US. That would work out to about 76,000 mg for every man woman and child, except for the fact that close to 60% of that total, or 29 million pounds are fed to animals, most of which are eventually fed to us.
The specific amounts of antibiotics used had been unavailable until now. Big Ag has not exactly been forthcoming with these kinds of details. But a 2008 amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, now requires manufacturers of anti-microbial drugs to “submit an annual report to the Food and Drug Administration on the amount of each such ingredient in the drug that is sold or distributed for use in food-producing animals.” The legislation was enacted to assist the “FDA in its continuing analysis of the interactions (including drug resistance), efficacy, and safety of antibiotics approved for use in both humans and food-producing animals.” The information provided in the report describes amounts by drug class only rather than specific drugs in order to protect “confidential business information.”
This number is substantially higher than what had previously been thought. The Animal Health Institute, a veterinary-drug trade group, had previously estimated total antibiotic use in livestock at 17.8 million pounds.
Why is so much medicine being given to animals? Well, for one thing they are often being raised in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions that can easily lead to the spread of disease. Many of the feeds and hormonal additives that the animals are given, including those that are genetically modified, are not naturally occurring and can cause the animals to become sick as well. The vast majority of this medicine however, is not being given to sick animals at all but rather to healthy animals to prevent them from becoming sick. It’s much easier in the large-scale industrial operations that produce so much of our food today, to treat every animal the same rather than having to identify and single out individuals for special treatment.
The problem with this kind of massive pre-emptive attack on micro-organisms is that it invariably leads to the development of disease-resistant varieties which can become significant public health threats. This was the focus of Maryn McKenna’s book Superbug in which she documents the rise of a novel anti-biotic resistant strain of staph bacteria known as MRSA or ST398. According to the CDC, there were 94,360 “invasive MRSA infections” in the United States in 2005, of which 18,650 were fatal. These kinds of numbers have persisted in the years since. In fact, more people now die of MRSA than of AIDS.
A test performed in 2008 on 209 pigs on farms around Iowa and Illinois found that 70% of them were infected with MRSA. And while the pork industry claims that the bacteria can be killed by adequate cooking, the disease can be transmitted by simply handling the meat.
Both the USDA and the FDA are responsible for overseeing the safety of the food supply but both agencies, which have notoriously strong ties to industry (the current head of the FDA, Michael Taylor, is a former executive at Monsanto), seem to be more concerned about protecting corporate profits than with protecting the American public.
Perhaps this recent report could be seen as a sign that things are about to change, but I wouldn’t count on it. The report, which was a whopping three pages long (one page of text and two long tables), was clearly produced so as to meet the absolute minimum reporting requirements under the law, with care being taken to avoid any embarrassing disclosures.
Scientists have clearly shown the link between the excessive us of antibiotics and the development of dangerous resistant strains, and yet nothing is being done.
Rep. Louise Slaughter D-NY introduced legislation called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, or PAMTA which seeks to control the amount and type of antibiotics that are used in animals so as to maintain the potency of these antibiotics for use in humans. The bill was introduced well over a year ago, but it has not yet moved forward, most likely because of the vested interests of Big Pharma and Big Ag which have been very effective at keeping our representatives’ hands in their pockets.
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails.
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