The future of antibiotics begins with our food.
Antibiotic drugs are one of the most important tools of modern medicine for people and animals. When my father was born in the 1930s, these drugs did not exist and bacterial infections were frequently fatal. When I was born in the 1960s, antibiotic use in humans and animals had become routine. Antibiotics were inexpensive, worked well when needed, and were believed to have few side effects. This led to massive overuse. Antibiotics were given for viral infections in humans even though they provided no benefit. In animals, antibiotics were given to healthy animals because they helped animals gain weight more quickly with less feed known as “growth promotion.” Antibiotics were even used in meat processing plants to reduce spoilage.
-Steven Roach, FACT's Food Safety Program Director
What is the issue?
Antibiotic resistance is a serious and growing problem in the United States, one caused by overuse of antibiotics both in human medicine and in agriculture. In September 2013, the CDC reported there are at least two million serious, antibiotic-resistant infections in the United States that result in more than 23,000 deaths annually—prompting concern that we are on the verge of a “post-antibiotic era.”
It is estimated that over 60 percent of all “medically important antibiotics” — drugs that are essential for treating sick people — are actually sold for use on farm animals. Often not to treat disease, but instead to compensate for crowded, stressful, and unhealthy conditions. You can read about how antibiotics are used in pigs and cattle in a report published by FACT in September 2019 based on U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys of farms.
We have created a system of raising livestock that relies upon the routine use of these crucial antibiotics. Baby pigs can be weaned earlier because antibiotics can control the stomach bugs that inevitably occur. Cattle can be fed unnatural high grain-based diets because antibiotics control the problems (liver abscesses and lameness) that these diets cause. Pig producers add antibiotics to the feed of older pigs even after numerous studies show they are not providing any benefit. It’s more about economics than about health--of both the animals and people alike.
The result is that U.S. farms use antibiotics much more intensively than farms in major livestock producing countries that have set goals for reducing overuse and restricted the routine use of antibiotic for disease prevention. In November 2018, FACT along with Natural Resources Defense Counsel produced a fact sheet comparing intensity of antibiotic use on U.S. farms with farms in Europe that clearly illustrates this.
Who are we?
The Keep Antibiotics Working Coalition (KAW), a national coalition of health, consumer, agricultural, environmental, humane and other advocacy groups dedicated to eliminating a major cause of antibiotic resistance: the inappropriate use of antibiotics in food animals. KAW is led by FACT's Food Safety Program.
Why should we care?
The end result of all this overuse is antibiotic resistance, the spread of strains of bacteria that are no longer affected by these drugs. As resistance becomes more common, doctors have to use more dangerous and more expensive drugs to treat infections. As infections become more difficult to treat, longer and more frequent hospital stays are needed. Ultimately, more people die. This is just the beginning. In most cases doctors are still able to find a treatment that works, but too often it is already too late. The rate of infections that are antibiotic-resistant are rising. Without a serious change of course untreatable bacterial infections may once again be a regular part of life. For this reason, it is absolutely necessary that we protect and preserve the antibiotics we now have--not just for us, but also for future generations.
What is currently being done?
On the federal level: As far back as the 1960s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognized that antibiotic overuse on farms contributes to antibiotic resistance. In the 1970s, the FDA required animal drug makers to show their products were safe with respect to antibiotic resistance, but then failed to take any action when the drug makers could not do it. In December 2016, the FDA implemented a volunteer plan called Guidance for Industry #213 to reduce antibiotic overuse on farm by getting drug makers to stop selling medically important antibiotics for growth promotion, and to also require a veterinarian's order for antibiotic usage in the food and water for farm animals. Despite this new guidance to the industry, the continued use of antibiotics in animals that are not sick to compensate for inappropriate diets and unsanitary farm conditions is still allowed. It also allows a veterinarian to write a single order for all animals on a farm to be given antibiotics for up to six months. The FDA has never indicated how much reduction in antibiotic useit expects from the plan or how much antibiotic use reduction is needed.
FACT calls for the FDA to prohibit the routine use of antibiotics in animals that are not sick, and to set reduction targets for antibiotic sales that are used for farm animals. KAW also calls for the industry to transparently report how antibiotics are used with their farm animals and to share the data with federal agencies. Learn more by visiting the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition website, FACT's Action Alert center, and by monitoring FACT's website and social media for updates.
On the corporate level: One of the most significant purchasers of meat raised with antibiotics is fast food companies. We seek to increase public awareness of food company influence on antibiotic usage thorough media outreach to publicize company actions. We also report on the policies of major food companies to ensure that consumers know how their food was raised.
Additionally, FACT collaborates with allied organizations on a fast food scorecard that is published in the annual Chain Reaction report. Please review the first annual Chain Reaction report issued in 2015, the second edition in 2016, and the third edition in 2017. In 2018, the fourth edition of Chain Reaction ranked the top 25 burger chains in addition to the top 25 overall chains. FACT also authored Stuffed: The Use of Antibiotics and Other Drugs in the U.S. Turkey Industry, first released in November 2015, and updated in November 2018.
What can you do? Take action.
FACT is fighting to end the abuse of antibiotics--and farm animals alike--in food animal production. But we need your help. Visit our Action Center page to participate in policy and corporate outreach campaigns. Your elected officials as well as the companies that you do business with, including supermarkets and fast food restaurants, need to hear from you. Act today, so that future generations have access to life-saving antibiotics tomorrow.