Is the meat and poultry on your dinner plate making you resistant to antibiotics? One advocacy group says yes.
Officials with Keep Antibiotics Working, whose mission is to eliminate the inappropriate use of antibiotics in food animals, urged the White House and Congress on Wednesday to push forward with legislation limiting antibiotics in livestock immediately.
They argued that American lives are at risk because farmers are feeding healthy animals a high volume of unneeded antibiotics, and when those animals enter the food supply, humans are developing resistance to certain bacteria.
Antibiotic resistance occurs when antibiotics no longer work against disease-causing bacteria. According to the Mayo Clinic, these infections are difficult to treat and can mean longer-lasting illnesses, more doctor visits or extended hospital stays, as well as the need for more expensive and toxic medications. Some resistant infections can even cause death.
"Every year, more than 100,000 Americans die from bacterial infections acquired in hospitals, and 70 percent of these infections are resistant to drugs commonly used to treat them. Antibiotic-resistant diseases now kill more Americans than HIV/AIDS," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York, the only microbiologist in Congress.
Slaughter has introduced legislation aimed at curbing antibiotic use in healthy animals while making clear that she still supports using antibiotics to treat sick animals.
Slaughter said her bill has 90 co-sponsors in the House, but a similar measure in the Senate has failed to gain significant support.
Opponents argue that legislation and regulation aren't the solution because Congress has introduced, and failed to find support for, similar bills for nearly a decade.
A leading critic of increased regulation is the Animal Health Institute, an organization that represents companies that develop and produce animal medicines.
"The Coalition for Animal Health opposes legislative bans of important animal health medicines that have been approved as safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration. One of our central goals is to contribute to public health by providing safe and healthful meat products. We need healthy animals, and the tools to keep animals healthy, to meet that goal," the Animal Health Institute, which is part of the coalition, said in a statement.
"As a result of the removal of antibiotics for growth promotion in Europe, many European countries have documented a significant increase in animal disease and an increase in the use of antibiotics to treat that disease. ... Europe has jeopardized animal health and has not demonstrated an improvement in human health," the institute's statement said.
The statement was signed by numerous veterinarians, beef, poultry and pork producers.
Scientists and doctors have become increasingly concerned about the overuse of antibiotics. Doctors are trying to stay one step ahead of the pathogens by developing new antibiotics and treatments that aren't resistant.
The medical community's effort to address the issue was lauded Wednesday.
"They are taking steps within their community to limit prescriptions and educate doctors. They recognize the severity of the problem and they're trying to do something about it. By contrast the animal agriculture community is still in denial. They are still saying despite a mounting body of evidence out there that their use doesn't constitute a problem," said Margaret Mellon, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Regardless of Wednesday's announcement, which included support from more than 150 scientists and dozens of farmers endorsing the Keep Antibiotics Working message and Slaughter's legislation, the White House and Congress aren't expected to take up the issue during the current term.
"We don't anticipate it going anywhere this Congress, but the congresswoman is convinced we can gain the traction we need starting in the next session," said Cheri Hoffman, Slaughter's legislative director.