When my kids were growing up, I made sure to buy organic poultry, meat and dairy products. I prefer organic for a number of reasons, in particular that the non-therapeutic feeding of antibiotics to animals is prohibited.
I'm glad I made the effort, even though organic foods often costs more. According to a recent study published in the journal, Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, chicken raised organically has less salmonella than chicken from conventional farms, and the salmonella it does have isn't antibiotic resistant.
The scenario playing out in my head was that one of my kids would get an infection, and I'd take him to the doctor, but the doctor could find not a single antibiotic with which to fight the infection, as the bacteria causing it had developed resistance. Panicky parent, you say? No, my concern is well founded. In fact, the salmonella strain that prompted a recall of nearly 55,000 pounds of frozen raw turkey burgers last week is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC said that as of April 1, 12 people ranging in age from 1 to 86 have been reported infected with the Salmonella Hadar strain.
Antibiotic-resistant illness causes tens of thousands of premature deaths in the United States annually and drives up medical costs. Today it is estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections add $50 billion annually to the cost of health care in the U.S.. Children, the elderly and the chronically ill are particularly vulnerable to antibiotic-resistant infections.
"Convenience and laziness top the list of causes of antibiotic resistance, " according to the Economist. "That is because those who misuse these drugs mostly do not pay the cost." Antibiotics work against bacteria, not viruses, yet patients press their doctors to prescribe them for viral infections such as colds or influenza, turning themselves into breeding grounds for resistant bacteria that may infect others. The doctors bear equal culpability, including when they don't make very clear that the patient must finish the full course of a drug prescribed in order to avoid promoting resistance.
Misuse of antibiotics by doctors and their patients is not the only cause of resistance; it may not even be the primary contributor. The lion's share -- 80 percent -- of all antibiotics sold in the U.S are given to livestock, often to perfectly healthy food animals so they will grow faster and to compensate for unsanitary conditions on many industrial farms. That's about 28.8 million pounds, and though it produces cheaper meat, it creates yet more opportunities for bugs to evolve resistance. Since many of the classes of antibiotics used in food animal production also are important in human medicine, resistance that begins on the farm can lead to a serious public health problem.
A number of U.S. food companies are using their market clout to help address the problem. In 2003, McDonald's Corporation announced it would only buy chicken from producers who do not use antibiotics for routine disease prevention, and recently four of the nation's top 10 chicken producers (Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Foster Farms, and Gold Kist) divulged that they have stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion.
These efforts are great, but only if they serve to reinforce the need for a comprehensive approach to end the overuse of antibiotics in meat production. Leaders in Congress have introduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), a bill to ban the use of seven classes of medically important antibiotics in livestock and poultry. Passage of PAMTA is critical to achieve broad-scale reductions in non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, and will create a level playing field for farmers as they transition away from the practice of routinely adding these drugs to animal feed.
Critics of a ban have suggested that it would be costly and ineffective, though this does not appear to be the case. Denmark stopped the administration of antibiotics used for growth promotion in broiler chickens and adult swine in 1998, and in young swine in 1999. A study published in 2010 in the American Journal of Veterinary Medicine by Danish researchers suggested that Denmark's AGP ban in food animals reduced overall antibiotic use and did not significantly impact production. In fact, recent numbers from Denmark show production levels of hogs increased by roughly 50 percent between 1992 and 2008.
Nor does it appear that the price of food would be significantly affected by a ban. According to the National Academy of Sciences, eliminating the use of antimicrobials as feed additives would cost each American consumer less than $5 to $10 per year. That is about what 2-3 pounds of hamburger meat costs, so spread over a year not much at all, and significantly less than the additional annual health care costs attributable to antimicrobial resistance, which comes to about $167 per person.
We live in an era in which we depend on antibiotics, and other antimicrobial medicines to treat conditions that decades ago, or even a few years ago in the case of HIV/AIDS, would have proved fatal. This is a global issue and so on April 7, 2011, World Health Day, the World Health Organization (WHO) will introduce a 6-point policy package to combat the spread of antimicrobial resistance and call on governments and stakeholders to implement the policies and practices needed to prevent and counter the emergence of highly resistant microorganisms.
I'm going to do my part too. I will use antibiotics only as prescribed, and choose USDA certified organic meat, dairy and poultry products until such time as Congress passes PAMTA. And I'm going to write my representative now, urge her to support the legislation. It may be the internet age, but I've been told a personal letter sent through the mail remains the form of communication that Congressional offices take the most seriously when considering an issue, followed by personal visits and telephone calls.
This post first appeared in OnEarth.org