Antibiotics have been used since the 1940s and have led to a dramatic reduction in illness and death from infectious diseases. But according to the federal Interagency Task Force on Antimicrobial Resistance, “The extensive use of antimicrobial drugs has resulted in drug resistance that threatens to reverse the medical advances of the last seventy years.” Since antibiotics have been used so widely and for so long, antibiotic resistance has become a major public health threat.
In response, there has been a concerted effort by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and others to encourage doctors and patients to use antibiotics more wisely. Unfortunately, little progress has been made to reduce the use of antibiotics on farms, where most of these drugs are administered. Ninety percent of the genetic material in your body is not yours but belongs to the bacteria that outnumber your cells 10 to 1. These bacteria have enormous influence on your digestion, detoxification and immune system.
Citing an overabundance in the use of antibiotics by the agriculture and aquaculture industries that poses a threat to public health, economics professor Aidan Hollis has proposed a solution in the form of user fees on the non-human use of antibiotics.
In a newly released paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Hollis and co-author Ziana Ahmed state that in the United States 80 per cent of the antibiotics in the country are consumed in agriculture and aquaculture for the purpose of increasing food production.
This flood of antibiotics released into the environment sprayed on fruit trees and fed to the likes of livestock, poultry and salmon, among other uses has led bacteria to evolve, Hollis writes. Mounting evidence cited in the journal shows resistant pathogens are emerging in the wake of this veritable flood of antibiotics resulting in an increase in bacteria that is immune to …
These methods are obviously profitable to the farmers, but that doesn't mean it's generating a huge benefit. In fact, the profitability is usually quite marginal.
The real value of antibiotics is saving people from dying. Everything else is trivial.”
While banning the use of antibiotics in food production is challenging, establishing a user fee makes good sense, according to Hollis.
Such a practice would deter the low-value use of antibiotics, with higher costs encouraging farmers to improve their animal management methods and to adopt better substitutes for the drugs, such as vaccinations.
Hollis also suggests that an international treaty could ideally be imposed. “Resistant bacteria do not respect national borders,” he says. He adds that such a treaty might have a fair chance of attaining international compliance, as governments tend to be motivated by revenue collection.
Hollis notes that in the U.S., a move has been made to control the non-human use of antibiotics, with the FDA recently seeking voluntary limits on the use of antibiotics for animal growth promotion on farms.
He asks: “Is the Canadian government going to take any action to control the use of antibiotics for food production purposes? Health Canada is trying to monitor the use of antibiotics, but has virtually no control over use.”
Use of antibiotics on the farm most definitely poses a risk to human health. Antibiotic use can promote creation of superbugs which can contaminate meat and poultry and cause hard-to-cure disease in people. Superbugs can also exit the farm via farm workers, wind, runoff, and wildlife. Even if they don’t immediately cause illness, bacteria are uniquely equipped to exchange genetic immunity via their plasmids, with other bacteria wherever they encounter them.
It is for these reasons that the public health community and FDA have been proposing to limit use of antibiotics on livestock for more than three decades (see list below). Consumers Union believes that as a prudent measure, we should drastically reduce use of antibiotics on food animals, and eliminate use altogether for growth promotion or disease prevention in healthy animals.
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