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July 28, 2014
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editorial

‘Untreatable;’ A call for change


In a report titled “Untreatable,” the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) last week warned about serious health threats from infections that are increasingly resistant to antibiotics and pointed to the unnecessary use of antibiotics in contributing to the rising risk that one day “our medicine cabinet will be empty and we won’t have the antibiotics we need to save lives,” in the words of CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD.

According to the report, “up to 50% of all the antibiotics prescribed for people are not needed or are not prescribed appropriately.” This, of course, means that doctors must be more circumspect when dispensing antibiotics prescriptions and patients must be less insistent about asking for them. Caution all around seemed to be the advice the CDC was dispensing.

But something else in the announcement caught our eye.

“Antibiotics are also commonly used in food-producing animals to prevent, control and treat disease, and to promote growth,” the report stated. In fact, The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70% of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are used for non-therapeutic purposes in livestock production. We find this practice to be not only unnecessary and inappropriate, but also unconscionable. While the CDC worries about the public health impact and countless consumers about their personal health, corporate food producers routinely feeding these drugs to livestock is all about, and only about, the corporate bottom line.

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalized its voluntary recommendations on “The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals.” We find the guidance woefully weak. It not only condones non-therapeutic preventive uses, but also is nonbinding and thus unenforceable. This situation prompts the question: if the FDA is not doing enough, who will?

Congress has gotten into the act.

In March, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY25) introduced House bill HR1150, “The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act 2013” and in June in the Senate, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced “The Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act 2103.” Ten days later, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand signed on to co-sponsor. Both bills are in committee in their respective chambers. But the sad truth is that given the power of lobbyists and the current dysfunction in Congress, passage of these proposals is uncertain at best.

This, then, brings the search for a solution to the doorstep of each and every one of us as individuals. For starters, we can vote with our wallets and buy organic products, although even this advice requires a disclaimer because the use of antibiotics is so pervasive that even some organic products are not immune. (Currently, a petition is circulating online asking the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to end streptomycin use in organic apple and pear orchards, which are sprayed to prevent the spread of fire blight that can damage organic apple and pear orchards.)

Another suggestion is for more people to join the local food movement, which is driven by the desire to know what is in the food we eat and where it comes from. The idea of buying locally produced food is to learn who your farmer is and how he/she grows, raises or produces farm products. The local food movement is a grassroots movement, and many people who have joined it believe it is the answer to eating fresher, healthier food than the present industrial food system can offer.

Given the likely failure of the livestock industry to police itself, the failure (so far) of the FDA to produce meaningful, enforceable rules, and the slim prospect that Congress will be able to garner enough votes to stop the non-therapeutic use of medically important antibiotics in the livestock industry, where else is there to turn but to ourselves and others of like minds to build and support a grass-roots movement for change?

If you believe, as we do, that the power of the industrial food complex—Big Food and Big Ag—conspires not only against the desire of many people to eat drug-free food products, but also against the general public health of us all, then it is time to act.

We encourage you to do some research, do some soul searching, and then make up your own mind.