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Antibiotics in Your Food: What You Need To Know

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During the height of the cold weather months, people count on antibiotics to fight bacterial infections. What they may not know is that current overuse and misuse of antibiotics is making bacteria more rapidly resistant to "essential antibiotics."

This scenario has all the elements of a modern science-fiction movie: monied interests, public health, government officials, unheeded warnings, and citizens getting vocal.

Playing a leading role in bringing awareness to the American people is The Pew Charitable Trusts, a non-profit that focuses on "improving public policy and informing the public." They have been using a multi-pronged social media campaign to amplify the problem with an awareness website, saveantibiotics.org, a petition on change.org, and an outreach campaign to alert mothers.

They are not alone in their apprehensions. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has stated that "antibiotic resistance" is among its top concerns. In a 2010 Congressional hearing, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Department of Agriculture (USDA) -- along with the CDC -- testified that a definitive link existed between antibiotic resistance in people and the "routine non-therapeutic use of antibiotic in industrial farming."

So what does this all mean to the layperson? The area under the radar is how the use of antibiotics is connected to food animal production and is used in industrial farming.

In factory farming, rather than just treating animals when they are sick, antibiotics are given to healthy animals to both offset the crowded and deficiently sanitary conditions animals are kept in -- with the goal of spurring animal growth.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association -- both mainstream organizations -- are concerned that the routine use of antibiotics in food animals presents a serious threat.

I called up Pew to find out more.

I spoke with Gail R. Hansen, Senior Officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts. A veterinarian who has served in private clinical practice, as well as in local and state public health departments, she walked me through the matter, offering succinct statements that helped to crystallize the problem.

"Animals are kept in small, confined spaces," she told me. "It's not the best hygiene." She noted that in the European Union they had stopped using antibiotics to make animals grow faster. "It's about changing practices," she clarified, "and not trying to fit animals in our needs."

Discussing the lack of oversight, Hansen detailed, "Most people don't realize that antibiotics can be gotten over-the-counter by farmers and ranchers. There is no regulation." This means that the same antibiotics humans depend on can be in an animal's daily feed. Succinctly, Hansen said, "The antibiotics being used to make healthy animals grow faster are the same [ones] we count on to get well." She observed, "A woman takes an antibiotic for a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI). However, the antibiotics may not work for the woman because she may be eating meat or poultry that has antibiotic resistant bacteria. The meat we eat may be a source of the bacteria that cause UTI infections. There is a connection between the meat you eat and the antibiotics you take for a UTI. It may not be obvious, but it's there."

When I asked Hansen why what seemed obvious should be a contentious issue -- aside from the bottom line of dollars and cents -- she replied dryly, "Antibiotic resistance deniers are ignoring forty years of science."

Can meat and chicken be produced without the routine use of antibiotics? Hansen was definitive in her belief that it could be done. I stopped by the shop where I buy chicken and inquired if the poultry and beef they sold was antibiotic free. The owner confirmed that all his products were free-range and antibiotic free. When I asked the same question at the supermarket, I was directed to the products by Applegate, a company that advertises itself as the "leading producer of natural and organic meats and cheeses." Hansen had also mentioned them.

I was able to connect with Stephen McDonnell, CEO and founder of Applegate, via e-mail. He forwarded material on a November 2011 survey on antibiotics the company had commissioned as part of an effort called Citizens Against Superbugs. One of the primary findings related "nearly eight in 10 parents (79 percent) favor government restrictions on use of antibiotics, and seven in 10 (71 percent) agree that such restrictions are worth paying more for meat and poultry."

McDonnell wrote, "As a parent and the owner of a business that deals daily with animal agriculture, I want antibiotics to keep working for all of us -- humans and animals. Parents would never sprinkle antibiotics in their kids' cereal in the morning to keep their kids from getting sick, yet farm animals are given low-dose antibiotics everyday to compensate for crowding and unsanitary conditions. A majority of Americans are concerned about the use of antibiotics on farms and its link to antibiotic resistance, and they are looking for meat and poultry that are raised without them. The biggest problem our industry faces is the supply of antibiotic-free meat and poultry [in] keeping up with the increasing demand. We can have an antibiotic-free food system. It does cost more to raise animals in conditions that would not require the use of antibiotics to keep them healthy -- but not much more. Estimates from independent consumer agencies and the National Academy of Sciences found that if restrictions on antibiotics were put in place, it would increase the cost of meat and poultry less than $1 per month for consumers. We should also take into account the hidden costs of maintaining current practices. Fighting antibacterial resistance in humans is estimated to add as much as $26 billion to U.S. healthcare costs every year."

Leading the call to action on the legislative side is Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), who holds a master's degree in public health and is the sole microbiologist in Congress. She has reintroduced H.R. 965, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which is formulated to ensure that we preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for the treatment of human diseases. (In the Senate, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sponsored S.1211).

Rep. Slaughter has confirmed with the FDA that 80 percent of all antibacterial drugs used in the United States are used on animals, not on humans. She has stated, "What we are witnessing is a looming public health crisis that is moving from farms to grocery stores to dinner tables around the country. Unless we act now, we will unwittingly be permitting animals to serve as incubators for resistant bacteria."

On April 7, 2011, World Health Day, The World Health Organization featured the theme "Combat Drug Resistance." WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan warned, "The world is on the brink of losing these miracle cures. In the absence of urgent corrective and protective actions, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, kill unabated."

It's not too late to get proactive.

This article originally appeared on the health website EmpowHER.

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