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IMAGINE if a new type of infectious bacteria were to be unleashed on the United States, one that was largely immune to current treatment. Tens of thousands of people could die each year, with the possibility of more to come.
It sounds like a science-fiction movie, but a similar situation is taking place right now. This year, it’s estimated that 23,000 Americans will die from superbugs — bacteria that are difficult or impossible to treat with antibiotics. The threat has the potential to grow dramatically, with scientists from organizations like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warning that the spread of these superbugs threatens to take away modern medicine’s best tool for fighting dangerous infections.
So far, the U.S. government has not yet taken aggressive action on one of the least justifiable contributors to antibiotic resistance in the United States: the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms.
Around 70 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are for use on livestock and poultry, often on animals that aren’t even sick, to make them grow faster or to prevent disease from unsanitary conditions. After repeated exposure to antibiotics, bacteria can develop resistance. When those bacteria contaminate meat that is then handled or consumed by people, they can cause serious infections.
In addition, these superbugs can leave the farm via contaminated air and soil, putting everyone, regardless of dietary preference, at risk.
Yet the federal agency responsible for regulating livestock antibiotics — the Food and Drug Administration — is moving at a snail’s pace in responding to the threat. In 2013, the FDA adopted a measure designed to limit antibiotic use on livestock. Unfortunately, the most important restrictions in the rule are easily circumvented. When it was announced, animal pharmaceutical companies said that they anticipated no noticeable changes to their sales — a clear indicator that it is likely to be ineffectual.
Countries like Denmark, one of the biggest pork producers in Europe, have already taken meaningful steps to curtail antibiotic abuse on factory farms by banning the administration of antibiotics to healthy animals. The U.S. should follow their lead and put meaningful restrictions in place here, with congressional support to ensure compliance.
In Washington state, we need U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray to become champions on this issue in the Senate. At the state level, California’s recent regulation on antibiotic use in livestock should be both a model and call to action for our state and the rest of the country to take action.
Outside of the halls of government, consumer preferences are driving significant changes in the private sector. Panera Bread and Chick-fil-A were early leaders in serving meat raised without the routine use of antibiotics.
A recent report by Friends of the Earth and others, entitled “Chain Reaction,” graded major restaurant chains on their policies for antibiotic use in their meat supply. Twenty of the 25 companies, including Seattle’s own Starbucks, received an F. Since then, Subway, with more restaurants than any other chain in the U.S., has committed to transitioning to serve all meat raised without antibiotics. Subway’s commitment sets the stage for other major restaurant chains to pressure livestock and poultry operations to stop overusing our lifesaving antibiotics. Perhaps Starbucks will be next to take the lead.
No one wants to live in a post-antibiotic world, one in which a simple scratch could lead to a deadly infection, as it did before the introduction of penicillin. If raising animals without the routine use of antibiotics could help avoid that fate, it would be worth it.
In science-fiction movies, scientists, the government and ordinary people rally to take the actions necessary to protect the lives of vulnerable Americans. With the new law in California and the actions of a handful of major chains, we’re seeing some of that.
But we need many more players to take decisive action to protect the nation against the spread of antibiotic resistance.
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