Skip to main content

How a cow could kill you: New antibiotic guidelines still fail to protect public

By Louise M. Slaughter and Robert S. Lawrence
updated 9:17 AM EST, Fri December 27, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Superbugs in farm animals have become resistant to many antibiotics
  • Slaughter: New FDA voluntary guidelines on antibiotic use aren't strong enough
  • Slaughter: Industry has a giant loophole to allow use

Editor's note: Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY) is the only microbiologist in Congress and has been a leader on public health issues, particularly on the overuse of antibiotics on the farm. Dr. Robert S. Lawrence is professor of Environmental Health Sciences, Health Policy, and International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

(CNN) -- Strep throat should not kill you. Nor should a knee scratch that becomes infected.

For decades, the world has relied upon antibiotics to treat common infections. As bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, these minor afflictions could soon become life-threatening.

Procedures that place patients at risk of infection, like hip replacements, dental work and open-heart surgery, could become far more dangerous.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in October that antibiotic-resistant bacteria -- known as "superbugs" -- cause at least two million infections and 23,000 deaths in the United States yearly. The cost to the U.S. health care system has been pegged at $17 billion to $26 billion annually.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter and Dr. Robert S. Lawrence
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter and Dr. Robert S. Lawrence

In 1977, the Food and Drug Administration found that feeding antibiotics to food animals at low doses, both to promote growth and to prevent disease, contributes to this public health crisis. The CDC concurred: "[M]uch of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe." The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and many others have called for restrictions.

In the almost four decades since the FDA acknowledged this problem, Congressional opposition and intense industry lobbying has blocked meaningful action -- even as hundreds of scientific studies have confirmed the link between antibiotic misuse in food animals and superbug infections in humans.

This month, the FDA issued voluntary guidelines designed to curb the misuse of antibiotics in animals. If history is any indication, the impact will be minimal on industries that have spent millions fighting mandatory regulation.

Industrial operations that produce most food animals in this country administer low doses of antibiotics to make animals grow faster and to prevent diseases from breaking out in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Using low doses of antibiotics in livestock exposes bacteria to just enough antibiotics to kill the most susceptible bugs while allowing resistant germs to thrive and reproduce.

Resistant bacteria are found in higher numbers on people who work at these operations, who can bring superbugs home with them into their communities. Resistant bacteria can also contaminate meat during slaughter. Fruits and vegetables that are fertilized with animal waste may be tainted as well. The more superbugs, the more likely they are to cause infections that are expensive and difficult to treat. Some may not be treatable at all.

Feds move to make meat safer
Widespread salmonella outbreak
'Superbugs' a growing threat

The FDA's guidelines ask industry not to use antibiotics for growth promotion but permit use of antibiotics for routine disease prevention with a veterinary prescription. This not only leaves producers with a loophole to continue using antibiotics for growth promotion by simply calling it another name, it also provides a disincentive to clean up their facilities. Instead, the industry can use the simplest, cheapest and most dangerous method to keep livestock healthy: antibiotics. The agency argues that veterinarians will ensure responsible use, but most livestock and poultry are overseen by veterinarians employed by companies that have spent years fighting regulation.

The FDA has emphasized that drug companies support its plan. That is no surprise: if antibiotics can still be used routinely for disease prevention, they will be sold in the same quantities, and industry will still make millions of dollars. The chief executive of the largest animal drug company said the guidelines "will not have a significant impact on our revenues." It is difficult to fathom why the FDA expects the drug industry to voluntarily reduce its sales when 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are sold for use on the farm.

Industry support follows decades of opposition to more meaningful restrictions by the drug and farm lobbies. In 2008, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which included veterinarians and infectious disease experts, recommended banning antibiotic use for growth promotion and disease prevention. A recent report by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future detailed how commission recommendations have been blocked by companies intent on maintaining the status quo.

Take for example the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), a bill that would save eight classes of antibiotic for use on humans and sick animals and which has been the subject of frequent industry attacks. Out of 225 lobbying reports filed in the 112th Congress on PAMTA, 195 reports (87.5%) were submitted on behalf of entities hostile to the legislation. Medical and consumer advocacy groups filed only 30 of the 225 reports (12.5%).

With millions of infections and thousands of deaths linked to antibiotic resistance, we cannot wait any longer to take meaningful action. The World Health Organization has warned that antibiotic resistance could mean "an end to modern medicine as we know it."

It is time for Congress to stop resisting meaningful regulations to curb the misuse of antibiotics and step up to the plate.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Louise M. Slaughter and Robert S. Lawrence.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT