The overuse of antibiotics in farming may have significant health consequences for consumers, according to testimony from the Food and Drug Administration. Now lawmakers are looking to curb the use of antibiotics in raising livestock, a move that puts them at odds with agribusiness interests.
A bill introduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) would prohibit seven types of antibiotics from being used indiscriminately in animal feed, a practice that has been linked to increased antibiotic resistance in humans. While the legislation is unlikely to become law this year, the bill already has 113 cosponsors and supporters have vowed to continue the fight.
"We must do more to tackle this piece of the antibiotic resistance puzzle," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said this week during the hearing on Slaughter's bill. "And we must do so as part of a comprehensive strategy designed to safeguard the vitally important public health tool that is our antibiotics. It is critical that we encourage the development of new drugs, but it is also essential to preserve the antibiotics we already have. That means we must move expeditiously to slow the advancement of antibiotic resistance in both humans and animals."
Slaughter's bill got a boost on June 28 when the FDA released draft guidance showing that excessive use of antibiotics to raise bigger livestock and poultry "poses a serious public health threat." The guidance papers, which do not carry weight of law but are generally accepted by industry, call for phasing in veterinary oversight and using antibiotics in food-producing animals only when needed for the animals' health.
During the hearing, Assistant Surgeon General Ali Khan cited salmonella studies which show that a steady diet of antibiotics yields antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can spread from livestock to humans who eat them or their produce.
The food industry's counterargument: Tough restrictions could drive up farmers' costs without improving public health.
"Before we go down a path that will have a devastating economic impact on our agriculture industry, we must assure science drives this debate," said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.). "So far there's nothing that links use in animals to a buildup of resistance in humans."
But when FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein began to explain why using medically important antimicrobial drugs for production purposes is not in the interest of protecting and promoting the public health, Shimkus kept cutting him off, until the committee chairman had to intercede.
"You are being disrespectful," Waxman told Shimkus. Turning to Sharfstein, Waxman said, "He doesn't like the answer you've given, but let's hear what it is."
Sharfstein provided information on cases of antimicrobial resistance and cited a 2004 report from Infectious Diseases Society of America that said about 2 million people acquire bacterial infections in U.S. hospitals each year, and 70 percent of those infections are resistant to at least one drug.
John Clifford, chief veterinarian of the Department of Agriculture -- which livestock producers have traditionally relied on to advocate for their interests -- said the USDA "believes that it is likely that the use of antimicrobials in animal agriculture does lead to some cases of antimicrobial resistance among humans and in animals themselves."
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) was the only Republican lawmaker at the hearing who expressed an interest in curbing the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. He stopped short, however, of endorsing a Democratic bill that would mandate such restrictions.
"The vast majority of evidence in the last three decades points to a linkage between routine, low-level antibiotic use in food animals and the transfer of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to people, often through the food supply," Murphy said at the hearing.
Seventy percent of all health care-related infections in the U.S. are resistant to at least one antibiotic, Murphy said, at an annual cost of $50 billion. Murphy added that one antibiotic-resistant infection -- MRSA -- kills more Americans each year than HIV/AIDS.
"What would happen," he asked, "if it would finally become resistant to the few remaining effective antibiotics?"