Are Food Animals the Next Tobacco?
    Category: Column By : James Kallman Read : 1106 Date : Wednesday, June 10, 2015 - 01:53:44

    The abuse of antibiotics is a worrying problem, especially as so many bacterial diseases are now becoming resistant to our rapidly diminishing bank of effective drugs. A recent British report forecast that by mid-century such infections could kill some 10 million people a year around the world, more than currently die from cancer.   

    This is not something that has crept up on us though, for Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, warned about bacterial resistance to his drug as early as 1945, just as antibiotics were beginning to become commercially available. Yet this has largely gone unheeded, not just by a general public that views them as a magical cure for a whole host of illnesses, but more seriously, by the foodstuffs industry.

    The practice of providing low levels of antibiotics to animals in their feed and water began back in the 1950s. Today, their use as “growth promoters” to maximize production and minimize costs is common practice for most intensively farmed animals in the U.S. Some reports suggest that at least 70% of all the antibiotics sold go to healthy food animals rather than people. However, while suppressing key diseases, the consistent low-level delivery of antibiotics also provides ideal conditions for the development of resistant bacteria in the animal’s gut, which can then be passed on to humans.

    Sufficient empirical evidence exists to suggest this is exactly what has been going on. Sweden was the first to take action, banning the use of antimicrobial agents on animals back in 1986, while a drastic reduction began in Denmark in 1994. Although the EU introduced a ban on their use as growth agents in 2006, usage levels remained steady in some countries; in Germany for instance, the tonnage of antimicrobial agents used on animals remained over twice that for humans in 2011. That was the year, however, the EU voted to ban the prophylactic use of antibiotics on animals, as alarm bells rang that their overuse was blunting their effectiveness on humans.

    This is a global concern though, as antibiotic resistant bacteria have been found in cattle from Brazil to South Korea, while at least half China’s production—the world’s largest—is used on animal factory farms. Meanwhile, another major antibiotic manufacturer, India, is reporting problems in its poultry industry.

    Action has been slow in the U.S. too, despite the FDA, Department of Agriculture and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention all testifying before Congress that there is a definitive link between the routine, nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in food animal production and the challenge of antibiotic resistance in humans.

    In 2012, the FDA announced a voluntary program to phase out the unsupervised use of drugs as feed additives, but this has gained only grudging support from some in the food industry with Tyson Foods being the latest to announce plans to eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its U.S. chicken operations by the third quarter of 2017. Nevertheless, there also remains a strong industry lobby opposed to any control on the feeding of antibiotics to animals. Having travelled this path before when the tobacco industry mislead the public on the links between smoking and cancer, one wonders whether food animals are to become the next tobacco.