Opinion: Antibiotic use in livestock should be a front-burner issue

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Dave Dickey

I have trypanophobia.

I’m not alone. A 2016 Chapman University study suggests that some 16.7 percent of the U.S. population is like-minded and suffers from the affliction.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to cope. As proof, I can right now type t-r-y-p-a-n-o-p-h-o-b-i-a without fainting or breaking out in hives. For those who don’t know what trypanophobia is, let me save you the trouble of Googling the term or reaching for Webster’s Dictionary.

It’s the fear of needles.

When I was younger, I would have nothing to do with needles. Crazy. But as I’ve aged, I’ve sucked it up, buttercup. For the most part, I was able to somewhat get over my fear because I’ve come to grips with the reality that whatever I’m being injected with is probably good for me. Like antibiotics, for example. As of late, though, there’s growing recognition in health circles that getting needled is becoming less effective because of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Partially to blame is the overuse of feeding antibiotics to livestock.

Way back before anyone knew this was an issue – 1951, to be exact – the Food and Drug Administration approved the first use of antibiotics for animal feed. What producers learned was that if you fed chickens or pigs feed mixed with the right amount of antibiotics, the critters would put on extra weight. Fast. All that extra weight increased the producer’s bottom line, and which livestock producer doesn’t like a little extra green?

It wasn’t long before feeding antibiotics to livestock became routine procedure. In fact, U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that antibiotic sale for farm use was a mind-boggling 34 million pounds just two years ago.

Scientists have been sounding alarm bells for more than a decade arguing that isn’t such a good idea.

By 2012, the FDA began to change its tune, stating:

“Misuse and overuse of antimicrobial drugs creates selective evolutionary pressure that enables antimicrobial resistant bacteria to increase in numbers more rapidly than antimicrobial susceptible bacteria and thus increases the opportunity for individuals to become infected by resistant bacteria.”

In English, the FDA believes that bacteria adapt and can become immune to the very antibiotics designed to kill them. That means superbugs. Better late than never, the FDA in January implemented what it calls “judicious use standards” to clarify how farmers should feed antibiotics to livestock.

Problem solved? Not so fast.

We have this most recent distressing tidbit from the Government Accountability Office:

“…gaps in farm-specific data on antibiotic use and resistance that GAO found in 2011 remain. GAO continues to believe HHS and USDA need to implement a joint on-farm data collection plan, as previously recommended. In addition, FDA and USDA’s Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) do not have metrics to assess the impact of actions they have taken, which is inconsistent with leading practices for performance measurement.”

What is the watchdog’s bottom line? We have no way of knowing whether all those shiny new judicious use FDA rules on feeding antibiotics to livestock actually work.

The PEW Charitable Trusts pulled no punches last October when it noted that – even after the policy changes – antibiotic labels remain problematic and injudicious uses may persist.

You can’t make this stuff up.

In March, federal lawmakers sent a letter to HHS chief Thomas Price telling him to fix the problem. They also introduced legislation calling for reduced use of antibiotics in agriculture.

Such calls to fix the problem have been going on for years with little to show for it.

Meanwhile, bacteria continue to mutate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say some 23,000 people die each year from bacterial infections resistant to antibiotics.

It’s time to stop the madness.

Congress must make this a priority, bringing livestock producers and public policy makers together to find a mutual solution. It was the desire for higher profits that started this whole mess. Ironically, it could be profitability that ultimately leads to a lasting solution. Livestock producers are finding growing resistance from consumers who want “antibiotic-free meat.”

Now, farmers and ranchers will tell you that there are no antibiotics in their animals at the time of slaughter. For a growing number of consumers, that’s not good enough.

Tyson Foods and a handful of other prominent food companies are listening. In February, Tyson announced that it would stop using antibiotics on its chickens by June. It’s a start.

Money talks.

Maybe financial pressure will do what Congress is loath to do – fix the problem.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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