Leading organizations (full disclosure: including mine) have joined together and set their sights on Yum! Brands, which includes Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, as the next big target to commit to purchasing meat and poultry raised with responsible antibiotic use. Eighty-two groups, representing millions of people, yesterday sent a letter to Yum! Brands leadership asking the company to "make a strong, definitive public commitment on antibiotic stewardship in its meat and poultry supply chains."
This is an important and timely request. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year antibiotic resistant bacteria account for at least 2 million serious infections, 23,000 deaths, and $20-35 billion in healthcare costs in this country. Those estimates (which are by CDC's own admission very conservative) are likely to go up as this public health crisis expands. Last year ended with disturbing news about the discovery of a mobile gene in China that was resistant to an antibiotic that has become our last hope for treating people infected with some of the most dangerous superbugs. (It is believed that this resistant gene originated from agricultural use of the antibiotic.) And research published in the first weeks of 2016 shows this gene has spread around much of the globe. This is just the latest in a steady flow of news warning us that antibiotics are becoming increasingly ineffective against deadly bacteria.
While antibiotics are certainly overused in human medicine, the most egregious misuse is in food animal production. In the U.S. alone, 32.6 million pounds of antibiotics were sold for use in food animals in 2013 compared to 7.7 million pounds sold for human medicine in 2011 (the most recent data available). Much of this use is to make food animals grow faster and/or to compensate for overcrowded and dirty living conditions. This breeds drug-resistant bacteria, or superbugs, that can end up in our air and water, in our meat and poultry and, ultimately, in us.
Some big players in the food industry (Tyson Foods, Perdue, Chick-fil-A, McDonald's, Costco, Wendy's and Subway) have made announcements, with varying levels of detail, on their plans to produce and/or source meat and poultry raised with limited or no antibiotics.
In fact, Yum! Brands also announced that it would require its chicken suppliers to stop using antibiotics that are "critically important" for human medicine by the end of 2016. But the organizations calling for change note how this is not enough. Steve Roach, Food Safety Program Director at Food Animal Concerns Trust explained the distinction in an email exchange: "While this seems like an important step, the available information suggests that the four classes of drugs affected are used infrequently if at all in chicken production. The policy allows the continued routine use of other drugs important for human medicine including the drugs used most frequently in poultry production."
Market pressure from large companies is undoubtedly an important step to reducing unnecessary use of antibiotics in agriculture and ultimately slow antibiotic resistance. But in order for us to see meaningful reductions in use companies must adhere to two key steps:
Eliminate routine use of all medically important antibiotics. Come January 2017, under FDA guidelines, antibiotics used for growth promotion will be banned; however, the drugs could still be used on a massive scale for disease prevention. To see meaningful reductions in use, we must stop this practice. All of the groups who signed the letter (including my own) support treatment of any animal that has a diagnosed illness.
Third-party verification. All claims by any company announcing policies limiting antibiotic use must be validated by a legitimate third-party auditor, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to ensure what is being said is actually happening and progress is being made.
Some considered 2015 to be the year of the "foodie" (though I prefer the term: food advocate), because consumer opinions and choices drove companies and policymakers to change the way food is grown and sold. Specifically, companies, large and small, said they were responding to consumer demand when they announced new and improved antibiotic use policies. Consumers, whose power to affect meaningful change is vast, must continue to call for even more change in the marketplace and vote with their wallets by supporting companies who are transparent regarding antibiotic use.
Recognizing the power of consumers, U.S. PIRG, one of the groups that organized the Yum! Brands letter, and its state affiliates are holding events in front of KFC franchises across the country to show that consumers are demanding meat raised without antibiotics. As Bill Wenzel, Antibiotics Program Director at U.S. PIRG, puts it: "Despite these successes, we need to re-double our efforts to counter new threats from superbugs that increasingly diminish the effectiveness of antibiotics. We will continue to ramp up our consumer awareness and advocacy campaigns to ensure that the superbugs don't win."
Industry, consumers, and the government have a role to play in combating superbugs and antibiotic resistance. Lena Brook, Food Policy Advocate at Natural Resources Defense Council was spot on when she said this recently: "We count on our life-saving drugs to work when we need them. No one wants their favorite pizza, taco or fried chicken place to undermine the effectiveness of our antibiotics. Companies like Yum! Brands--which owns some of America's most popular restaurant chains, like KFC--have the power to keep our drugs working by asking their suppliers to end the routine use of antibiotics in animals that are not sick."
The time is now to truly preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics and slow antibiotic resistance. The frightening news of that mobile gene found in humans and animals around the world that is resistant to the last-resort antibiotic underscores the urgency to take concrete action now. We truly are losing the war against superbugs.
Every individual, company and sector has a role to play in addressing this growing public health crisis. There is significant movement on reducing unnecessary and inappropriate antibiotic use on the human side, but the problem of antibiotic resistance will not be tackled unless the use of antibiotics in food animal production is also comprehensively addressed. With organizations around the U.S. calling on companies like Yum! Brands to improve their antibiotic policies, we move one step closer to reducing the unnecessary and inappropriate use of these vital drugs in food animal production.