The overuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobials in raising farm animals for food may not be equivalent to Covid-19 and climate change as threats to human health, but it is right up there. This practice contributes to antibiotic-resistant infections, which are now a leading cause of death worldwide.
The annual death toll from antimicrobial resistance could reach 10 million by 2050 — more people than currently die from cancer. Over- and misuse of antibiotics has allowed infections to mutate and resist the drugs necessary to treat countless life-threatening conditions. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the U.S. has lost progress combating antimicrobial resistance since 2020 due, in large part, to the Covid-19 pandemic. The report emphasizes, “This setback can and must be temporary.”
The U.S. and other governments are taking steps to reduce antibiotic use in animal farming. Paradoxically, the Food and Drug Administration seems to be working against public health by refusing to set antibiotic reduction goals in agriculture. How can the U.S. successfully fight antibiotic resistance when its federal agencies aren’t aligned on the problem of antibiotic misuse, let alone the solution?
Almost two-thirds of the medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. go to industrial agriculture, mainly to raise pigs and cattle. Factory farms raise these animals in unhygienic, overcrowded, poorly ventilated conditions and give them antibiotics to mitigate the consequences. This inevitably leads to the development of dangerous antibiotic-resistant superbugs that spread to humans through tainted food and the environment. To put this number in context, humanely raised animals rarely need any antibiotics at all, if ever.
Continuing the high use of antibiotics for raising farm animals sets the U.S. up for a health catastrophe. The federal government needs to establish national targets now for reducing the overuse of antibiotics in food animal production, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture and FDA have yet to clearly acknowledge this need. Instead, the FDA made a “plan” full of subpar goals that have continually been put off, watered down, and left unmet, and has rejected calls to set reduction targets in numerous meetings with members of the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition, with which I am affiliated. A USDA official has even stated in an email she mistakenly shared with me that reducing antibiotic use in agriculture is “against the U.S. government policy,” part of which is promoting agriculture — and protecting the profits of industrial agriculture corporations.
The CDC is clear about the need to reduce antibiotic use. The USDA and FDA should be following its lead by limiting antibiotic use in animal agriculture.
Earlier this week, the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, the leading body providing advice to federal agencies in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, met in person for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. It spent two days discussing how to integrate the fight against antibiotic resistance into the nation’s response to future pandemics. The meeting made clear the huge gap between the nation’s preparedness to address antibiotic resistance in the human health sector versus in agriculture.
The meeting highlighted the tremendous progress in monitoring antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance in humans since the beginning of the pandemic. In contrast, very little has been done to improve monitoring on the agricultural side, with the federal response depending completely on the large meat companies that did such a poor job protecting their workers early in the pandemic.
The gap extends to prevention as well. On the animal side, consumers are asked to trust meat producers, who see the problem in terms of keeping pathogens from spreading between farms rather than finding ways to raise healthier animals that need fewer antibiotics in the first place.
This advisory council has spent six years offering advice to federal agencies on ways to combat antibiotic resistance, but has never clearly stated the need to reduce antibiotic use in agriculture.
I was one of the advocates who wrote to the council before the meeting, and made comments during it, asking the council to make clear that preventing the spread of resistant pathogens means using fewer antibiotics. During the meeting, the council never acknowledged the need to reduce the use of antibiotics in raising animals for food. The council will release a report in the near future offering advice to federal agencies based on this meeting.
I and others hope the council will call on federal agencies to set national targets for reducing antibiotic use in animal agriculture. If it does not support reducing use, then it is like a committee on climate change that does not believe reductions in greenhouse gasses are needed, and its advice should be disregarded. Recognizing the need to reduce the use of antibiotics in raising farm animals will certainly ruffle the feathers of some of the agriculture industry members on the council, but addressing the problem of antibiotic resistance cannot be done without challenging the status quo.
Since at least the 1960s, experts have recognized the human health threats associated with antibiotic overuse in food-producing animals. Yet today, nearly 3 million Americans are sickened and as many as 160,000 are killed by antibiotic-resistant infections. Reduction targets must be set for agriculture to match those in human health care and solutions must be implemented that align federal agencies on taking the urgent steps required to protect public health. Failure to acknowledge and act on this will threaten Americans’ health.
We are playing a game of chicken with nature right now, and the odds are not on our side.
Steven Roach is the director of the Safe and Healthy Food Program at the Food Animal Concerns Trust and a senior analyst for Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition of advocacy organizations working to combat the inappropriate use of antibiotics in food animals.