When my kids were growing up, I made sure to buy organic poultry, meat and dairy products for their meals. I prefer organic for a number of reasons, in particular that the non-therapeutic feeding of antibiotics to animals is prohibited.
I’m glad I made the effort, even though organic foods often cost more. According to a recent study published in the journal, Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, chicken raised organically has less salmonella than chicken from conventional farms, and the salmonella it does have isn’t resistant to antibiotics.
When my children were young, the scenario that played out in my head was that one of my kids would get an infection, and I’d take him to the doctor, but the doctor would not be able to find a single antibiotic with which to fight the infection--because the bacteria causing it had developed resistance. Panicky parent, you say? No, my concern is well founded. Look at the salmonella strain that prompted a recall of nearly 55,000 pounds of frozen raw turkey burgers last week: It's resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC states that as of April 1, 2011, 12 people ranging in age from 1 to 86 have been reported infected with the Salmonella Hadar strain.
Children, the elderly and the chronically ill are particularly vulnerable to antibiotic-resistant infections. They cause tens of thousands of premature deaths in the United States annually, as well as driving up medical costs: it's estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections add $50 billion annually to the cost of health care in the U.S.
“Convenience and laziness top the list of causes of antibiotic resistance," according to The Economist magazine. “That is because those who misuse these drugs mostly do not pay the cost.” Antibiotics work against bacteria, not viruses, yet patients press their doctors to prescribe them for viral infections such as colds or influenza, turning themselves into breeding grounds for resistant bacteria that may infect others. The doctors bear equal culpability, if they fail to make clear that the patient must finish the full course of a prescribed drug, in order to avoid promoting resistance.
Misuse of antibiotics by doctors and their patients is not the only cause of resistance; it may not even be the primary contributor. The lion’s share – 80 percent - of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to livestock--often to perfectly healthy food animals--to speed up their growth rates, as well as to compensate for unsanitary conditions on many industrial farms. That’s about 28.8 million pounds on the hoof or claw, and though it produces cheaper meat, the practice creates yet more opportunities for bugs to develop resistance. Since many of the classes of antibiotics used in food animal production also are important in human medicine, resistance that begins on the farm can lead to a serious public health problem.
A number of U.S. food companies are using their market clout to help address this problem. In 2003, McDonald's Corporation announced it would buy chicken only from producers who do not use antibiotics for routine disease prevention. Recently 4 of the nation's top 10 chicken producers--Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Foster Farms, and Gold Kist--divulged that they have stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion.
These efforts are great, but only if they serve to reinforce the need for a comprehensive approach to end the overuse of antibiotics in meat production. Leaders in Congress have introduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), a bill to ban the use of seven classes of medically important antibiotics in livestock and poultry. Passage of PAMTA is critical to achieving broad-scale reductions in non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, and will create a level playing field for farmers as they transition away from the practice of routinely adding these drugs to animal feed.
Critics of a ban have suggested that it would be costly and ineffective, though this does not appear to be the case. Denmark stopped the administration of antibiotics used for growth promotion in broiler chickens and adult swine in 1998, and in young swine in 1999. A study published in 2010 in the American Journal of Veterinary Medicine by Danish researchers suggested that Denmark's AGP (antibiotic growth promoters) ban in food animals reduced overall antibiotic use and did not significantly impact production. In fact, recent numbers from Denmark show production levels of hogs increased by roughly 50 percent between 1992 and 2008.
Nor does it appear that the price of food would be significantly affected by a ban. According to the National Academy of Sciences, eliminating the use of antimicrobials as feed additives would cost each American consumer less than $5 to $10 per year. That is about what two-three pounds of hamburger meat costs, so spread over a year it's not much at all. It's significantly less than the additional annual health care costs attributable to antimicrobial resistance, which comes to about $167 per person.
We live in an era in which we depend on antibiotics, and other antimicrobial medicines, to treat conditions that decades ago (or even a few years ago in the case of HIV/AIDS) would have proved fatal. This is a global issue, so on April 7, 2011, World Health Day, the World Health Organization (WHO) will introduce a six-point policy package to combat the spread of antimicrobial resistance and call on governments and stakeholders to implement the policies and practices needed to prevent and counter the emergence of highly resistant microorganisms.
I’m going to do my part, too. I will use antibiotics only as prescribed, and choose USDA certified organic meat, dairy, and poultry products, until Congress passes PAMTA. And I’m going to write my representative now, to urge her to support the legislation. It may be the internet age, but I’ve been told a personal letter sent through the mail remains the form of communication that Congressional offices take the most seriously when considering an issue, followed by personal visits and telephone calls.