Antibiotics on the Farm

Recently a bill was re-introduced before the House and Senate that proposes limitations on the use of antibiotics by healthy farm animals.  This legislation, called The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), stipulates that seven types of antibiotics commonly used by humans are no longer to be routinely given to farm animals unless they are actually sick.

These antibiotics include familiar ones such as penicillin/amoxicillin, sulfa drugs, tetracyclines, and macrolides (Z-pack).  
 
Most people are not aware that at least 70% of antibiotics used in the United States are fed to healthy food animals without a prescription.  These animals get the antibiotics in their daily feed.  The reasoning is that it helps them grow a little faster when living in stressful, crowded, and unsanitary conditions.
 
There are, however, a number of hidden costs.  
 
The biggest concern is antibiotic resistance.  The "every meal, every animal" approach is in fact an ideal breeding ground for resistant organisms.  Administering constant, low levels of antibiotics is actually the best way to create superbugs.  It's much more prudent to give a therapeutic dose only until the animal is well again.
 
Years ago patients were given penicillin shots many times a year, perhaps almost every time they visited the doctor.  You may recall that era.  But the more an antibiotic is used, the less well it works.  These days, penicillin is only effective for some streptococcal infections, like strep throat.  It is now useless for skin problems, pneumonia, ear infections, sinusitis, urinary infections, etc.
 
In an effort to protect and preserve the antibiotics we have, physicians have generally become much more stingy about prescribing them when they're not truly needed.  When we say "it's a virus...antibiotics won't help", that's what we're talking about.  If we respect this concept, antibiotics will work quickly and powerfully when they are needed.  Unfortunately, factory farms have not made a similar effort.
 
It's easy to assume that drug companies will just develop new antibiotics to replace the old ones.  However, the last antibiotic approved by the FDA came out in 2003.  That's not a very reassuring thought when one realizes we are burning through the available ones fairly quickly.  And furthermore, there are currently very few antibiotics even in the research pipeline.  
 
About 20,000 people now die each year from MRSA (more than HIV/AIDS).  MRSA is a resistant staph bacteria that didn't exist until a few years ago, and is now only susceptible to a couple of antibiotics.  I treat MRSA about once a month in Soda Springs.  In bigger cities and hospitals it's much more common.
 
The argument raised by the industrial animal producers, who oppose this bill or any other limitations on antibiotic use for healthy animals, is that the price of meat will go up, by one estimate $5 to $10 more per year per family.  However, Denmark, a big pork producing country (26 million hogs a year), has reduced their farm antibiotic use by half while productivity has gone up, and they say the cost of meat for the consumer did not increase. 
 
The factory farms, though, are not accounting for all the costs.  What is the price tag for an antibiotic that loses its effectiveness?  Why do we keep having E coli and Salmonella outbreaks from hamburger, chicken, eggs, spinach, and other foods?  I can tell you from a medical perspective that the solution is not more antibiotics, but proper, judicious use of antibiotics and a good hard look at how animals are raised and processed.  Cows that eat grass rarely even carry pathogenic E coli in their digestive tracts.  On the other hand, their counterparts living on corn in the Nebraska feedlots are literally wallowing in this particular bacteria.  They are colonized with it, they stand all day in it, and (not surprisingly) it ends up in meat.