The "Animal PHARM" - Antibiotic Farming in America
An estimated 70% of the antibiotics and other microbial drugs used in the United States are fed to farm animals for non-therapeutic purposes, including (i) growth promotion; and (ii) compensation for crowded, unsanitary, and stressful farming and transportation conditions. Unlike human use of antibiotics, these non-therapeutic uses in animals typically do not require a prescription. To prevent disease outbreaks (and to stimulate faster growth), the hog industry alone adds more than 10 million pounds of antibiotics to its feed, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates.
Large-scale voluntary surveys by the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service over a period of seven years revealed that between 83 and 84 percent of swine farms, cattle feedlots and sheep farms administer antimicrobials in the feed or water for health or growth promotion reasons, and that many of the antimicrobials identified are identical or closely related to drugs used in human medicine, including tetracyclines, macrolides, bacitracin, penicillins and sulfonamides.
Scientific studies confirm that the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in agricultural animals contributes to the development on antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in people.
The United States Geological Survey reports that: (a) antibiotics were present in 48% of the streams tested nationwide; and (b) almost half of the tested streams were downstream from agricultural operations.
The American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, and the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture are among the more than 300 organizations representing health, consumer, agricultural, environmental, humane, and other interests that support phasing out non-therapeutic use in farm animals of medically important antibiotics.
Two million Americans acquire bacterial infections during their hospital stays every year, and 70% of their infections will be resistant to the drugs commonly used to treat them. According to the Infectious Disease Society of America, 90,000 people die each year of hospital acquired infectious disease. Children and infants are particularly susceptible to infections cause by antibiotic resistant bacteria. Over 1/3 of the 1.4 million illnesses caused by Salmonella every year occur in children under the age of 10. Infants under the age of one are ten times more likely that the general population to acquire a Salmonella infection. 19% of Salmonella strains were found to be multi-drug resistant.
Seven classes of antibiotics certified by the FDA as "highly" or "critically" important in human medicine are used in agriculture as animal feed additives. Among them are penicillin, tetracyclines, macrolides, lincosamides, streptogramins, aminoglycosides and sulfonamides. These classes of antibiotics are among the most critically important in our arsenal of defense against potentially fatal human diseases.
A New England Journal of Medicine study conducted in Washington, DC found that 20% of meat sampled was contaminated with Salmonella and that 84% of those bacteria were resistant to the antibiotics used in human medicine and animal agriculture.
In another study, poultry workers were found to have 32 times the likelihood of carrying a gentamicin-resistant E. coli compared to the community at large. These same workers were also at significantly increased risk of carrying multidrug resistant E. coli. These workers may provide an easy route for entry for antimicrobial-resistant E. coli into their community.
The scale of the problem is staggering. In a survey of members of the Animal Health Institute (AHI), consisting of companies that make medicines for farm animals, the total active antibacterial ingredients sold by all AHI members was 21,761,128 pounds in 2004. By 2006, that amount increased to 26,454,107 pounds, a 21.5% increase. Specifically sales of tetracyclines increased from 6,486,207 pounds to 9,281,703 pounds, a 43% increase.
Other estimates from a group called "Keep Antibiotics Working" (KAW) - a coalition of health, consumer, agricultural, environmental, humane and other advocacy groups with more than 10 million members estimates that animal agriculture uses 13 million pounds of antibiotics each year, about 70% of the total used in the United States. The AHI actual sales figure dwarf this estimate. According to KAW, the majority of the antibiotics are used for growth promotion and disease prevention, and are not used for treating sick animals.
The AHI asserts that only 5%of all antimicrobials sold for food animlas are used for non-therapeutic use to increase weight gain or decrease food consumption, and that the rest are sold to "prevent, control and treat" animal diseases. These differences between KAW and AHI likely relate to definitions of therapeutic vs. non-therapeutic, prevention, and treatment.
Poultry insider Spangler Klopp, DVM, corporate veterinarian for Townsends Poultry and a spokeperson for the National Chicken Council notes that industry grows about 9 billion chickens a year on about 34,000 facilities. In the early 70s, a chicken would reach 4 pounds in 56 days. Today, with growth promoters, chickens reach 5-1/2 pounds in 50 days. In the early 80s 93.5% (livability percentage) of chickens made it day-old chicks to slaughter. Today, 95.6% make it to slaughter. Dr. Klopp also believes that if chickens are permitted to poke at the ground (as chickens tend to do), they are prone to development of diseases of the gastrointestinal track. The conditions in which chickens are kept necessitates the antibiotics to prevent diseases related to their confinement.
The interests of industry groups are largely economic. According to the National Pork Producers Council, a ban on antibiotic use would increase the cost of pork production by $4.50 per pig in the first year, with a 10-year cumulative cost of $700 million. The National Turkey Federation (NTF) notes that industry raises 260 million turkeys at an average weight of 28 pounds. Before widespread use of anitmicrobials, average weight was only 17 pounds. According to the NTF retail turkey prices for birds produced without antibiotics is $1.00 more per pound than those produced with antibiotics. The National Chicken Council represents that broilers raised without antibiotics are 2.91% less likely to make it to slaughter (under current conditions), gain weight more slowly, and are only suited for a niche market catering to consumers who can afford to pay higher prices for chickens.
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