Antibiotic Resistance from Animal Agriculture: Foodborne Illness and Medical Care

The Physicians Committee

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Antibiotic Resistance from Animal Agriculture: Foodborne Illness and Medical Care

U.S. Regulation of Antimicrobials in Agriculture

In 2009, about 29 million pounds of antibiotics, or 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States, went to farm animals.5 Of that, 70 percent was administered subtherapeutically through feed. According to a study by Tufts University researchers, the prolonged sublethal doses used in these farms promote antibiotic resistance.22

In testimony presented to the House Rules Committee on July 14, 2010, FDA representatives warned of a clear link between the use of antibiotics in livestock and health risks to humans. In his testimony, Joshua Sharfstein, former principal deputy commissioner of the FDA, stated the FDA’s position that “the use of antimicrobials should be limited to those situations where human and animal health are protected. Purposes other than for the advancement of animal or human health should not be considered judicious use. Eliminating these uses will not compromise the safety of food.”23

Unfortunately, U.S. agricultural policy is at odds with these warnings, and has been for more than 40 years.

By 1970, agricultural scientists in the United States and Britain were raising questions about subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed. Task forces in both countries outlined concerns and potential hazards in 1972. However, reform was halted almost immediately due to pressure by meat, dairy, and pharmaceutical lobbies. In 1977 and under new leadership, the FDA renewed attempts to limit antibiotic use in agriculture.

In 1997, the World Health Organization issued an official policy opposing subtherapeutic antibiotic use in animal feed. Parts of Europe had already implemented policies and bans by this time. The European Union finally banned subtherapeutic antibiotic usage in livestock in 2006, and it may take years to reduce the prevalence of drug-resistant bacteria to acceptable levels. The United States has yet to take action.