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Are Factory Farmers Winning the Antibiotics War?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) calls antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest public health challenges of our time.” In the U.S., at least 2 million people get an antibiotic-resistant infection every year, and at least 23,000 of those people die, the CDC says.

Antibiotic resistance is a global, and worsening, problem. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “some types of bacteria that cause serious infections in humans have already developed resistance to most or all of the available treatments, and there are very few promising options in the research pipeline.”

In November 2017, a WHO official said:

“A lack of effective antibiotics is as serious a security threat as a sudden and deadly disease outbreak. Strong, sustained action across all sectors is vital if we are to turn back the tide of antimicrobial resistance and keep the world safe."

Unfortunately, the tide isn’t turning back. In the U.S., that’s largely because lobbyists for some of the world’s biggest agribusiness corporations have successfully thwarted efforts by Congress to restrict the rampant and reckless use of antibiotics on factory farms.

A ‘growing’ problem

Antibiotics allow livestock growers to raise animals in unsanitary, confined conditions that would otherwise kill or sicken them.

Antibiotics also allow factory farmers to use less feed. How much less feed? Without antibiotics, 175,550 more tons of feed would be needed to grow U.S turkeys, said Michael Rybolt of the National Turkey Federation hearings held in 2008, when the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) was trying to put limits on antibiotic use by factory farms.

The theory is that antibiotics increase weight in livestock by strengthening microbes that absorb nutrientsmaking food more "efficient." (Researchers think that theory may at least partly explain the obesity epidemic among humans).

But Big Pharma's animal antibiotic orgy's biggest harm isn’t human obesity. The reckless and widespread use of antibiotics, especially those critical ones used to treat infections in humans, creates antibiotic-resistant microbes, including E. Coli, salmonella, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), C. difficile and others. Each year in the U.S., at least two million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections, says the CDC.

Follow the money

If the “old” antibiotics aren’t working on humans anymore, why doesn’t Big Pharma just come up with new ones?

Because there’s no money in it for them. Unlike the statins and psychoactive drugs, prescribed for long-term use and responsible for making Pharma the most profitable industry in the world, antibiotics are taken for only a few days. But feeding them by the ton every day to farm animals is a different—and highly lucrative—story. So despite efforts by public health agencies and lawmakers to stop factory farmers from feeding healthy animals antibiotics, Pharma is still brazenly pushing the practice.

A  recent New York Times article details how Animal Pharma giant Elanco has launched a shocking new campaign called "Pig Zero" that tells farmers to treat pigs with antibiotics when they are healthy and before a disease outbreaks occurs. This is the exact opposite of what the CDC, doctors and public health officials urge.

U.S. factory farmers turn nasty when the government tries to take away their antibiotics. In 2008, the egg, chicken, turkey, dairy, pork and cattle industries stormed Capitol Hill over the FDA's attempt to prohibit the use of antibiotics called cephalosporins, used to treat a variety of infections in humans, including urinary tract infections, strep throat and pneumonia. The National Turkey Federation told the FDA that antibiotics are downright "green,” because they allow farmers to feed less grain, leading to less land being planted in crops.

On the basis of logic like that—and millions of dollars spent on lobbyists—the factory farmers won that round.

After a decade-long battle with Bayer, whose fluoroquinolone Baytril (enrofloxacin) was routinely used in poultry, in 2015, the government managed to ban the antibiotic's use in poultry water. But, and it’s a big "but," fluoroquinolones––including Baytril––are still clearly in use on U.S. farms, behind the public's back. For example, in 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Residue Program for Meat, Poultry and Egg Products, which tests for six fluoroquinolones, found enrofloxacin (Baytril) and ciprofloxacin (Cipro) residues in meat.

Why is that a big deal? In 2018, the FDA strengthened the warning labels for all fluoroquinolone antibiotics to include mental health side effects and the risk for severe low blood sugar, including hypoglycemic coma.

The USDA also found residues of danofloxacin, an antibiotic not even approved for humans. Danofloxacin is so dangerous its label says "Animals intended for human consumption must not be slaughtered within 4 days from the last treatment. Do not use in cattle intended for dairy production. A withdrawal period has not been established for this product in preruminating calves. Do not use in calves to be processed for veal."

Though a 2013 FDA guidance required Pharma companies that make livestock antibiotics remove "growth production" from the label, the drugs are still routinely used for the new indication of "disease prevention," explained Senior Staff Scientist at Consumers Union, Dr. Michael Hansen, soon after the new guidance was issued.

One example of the persisting uses is seen in feedlots, Hansen said. Feeding cattle grain instead of a more natural diet produces a high level of liver abscesses, he said and feedlot operators routinely give them the antibiotic Tylosin for the abscesses thus "preventing disease." Tylosin reduces abscess incidence by 40 to 70 percent in such cattle according to medical journals.

The late Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter, a microbiologist with a master’s degree in public health, said the 2013 guidance was "an inadequate response to the growing antibiotic resistance crisis caused by overuse of antibiotics on the farm."

2014 investigation by Reuters, after the 2013 guidance was issued, confirmed Slaughter’s suspicions. The investigation determined that Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's Pride, Perdue Farms, George's and Koch Foods were using antibiotics "more pervasively than regulators realize."

Pilgrim's Pride's feed mill records show the antibiotics bacitracin and monensin are added "to every ration fed to a flock grown early this year." (Pilgrim's Pride threatened legal action against Reuters for its finding.) After also being caught red-handed using antibiotics despite denying their use on its website, Mark Kaminsky, Koch Foods CFO, said "I regret the wording." Koch Foods supplies Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Both the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Slaughter fought valiantly to curtail the reckess use of farm antibiotics but they had formidable enemies. Pharma and factory farmers spent over $17 million to block the bill they were supporting, the Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2007, Slaughter said.

“It seems scarcely believable that these precious medications could be fed by the ton to chickens and pigs,” wrote Kennedy in the bill, noting that up to 70 percent of all U.S. antibiotics go to livestock.

The use of antibiotics isn’t limited to meat. Scientists at the University of Minnesota found antibiotic residues in corn, green onions and cabbage after growing them on soil fertilized with livestock manure. The drugs siphoned right up from the soil in just six weeks.

A 2010 University of Iowa study found the resistant bacteria MRSA in 70 percent of hogs on farms studied and 64 percent of workers. Superbugs have even been found on an unopened soft drink can in a car following a poultry truck.

With pro-public health voices like Kennedy and Slaughter gone, and a pro-industry administration in charge, it looks like Pharma has won the antibiotics war on the farm––at least for now.

Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to Organic Consumers Assocation (OCA). Katherine Paul, OCA associate director, contributed to this article. To keep up with OCA news and alerts, sign up for our newsletter.