The Growing Public Health Threat That Congress Isn’t Doing Anything About

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gillian Wong

Congress isn’t taking any meaningful steps to protect Americans from the ever-increasing threat posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the food industry, according to a new report issued on Tuesday. Every recent legislative attempt to stem the use of antibiotics in animals has been blocked by the farm and pharmaceutical industries — and public health researchers warn that’s putting Americans at risk, even though the issue could easily be prevented with additional regulation.

If you don’t understand why this is such a big deal, you’re not alone. The rise of drug-resistant bacteria in meat has been a serious public health concern for years, but many Americans don’t realize all of the factors at play.

Essentially, this is an issue that’s been created by factory farming and the largely unregulated meat industry. When factory farms squeeze large numbers of animals into very tight quarters, that increases the risk that diseases will quickly spread among the livestock. To mitigate that risk, farmers pump their animals full of antibiotics — often, the exact same type of drugs that are given to sick humans. And, since antibiotics lose their effectiveness when they’re overused, giving so many of them to animals threatens to increase drug-resistant bacteria strains. More than half of U.S. meat now contains bacteria that’s resistant to antibiotics.

The meat industry has maintained that using antibiotics in animals doesn’t actually have a negative effect on people. But a mounting pile of evidence proves that wrong. One recent study demonstrated that drug-resistant bacteria in animals can be transferred to humans. And some factory farm workers have been revealed to be carrying antibiotic-resistant bacteria that originated in the animals they work with.

Other countries ban the practice of giving antibiotics to animals for non-medical purposes. But the United States hasn’t taken any steps in that direction — in fact, we currently don’t even require farmers to report the types or the quantities of drugs they’re using on livestock. Tuesday’s new report, issued by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, points out that regulation in this area has actually regressed under the Obama administration.

“In a couple of areas, the Obama administration started off with good intentions. But when industry pushed back, even weaker rules were issued,” Bob Martin, executive director of the Center for a Livable Future, told the Washington Post. “We saw undue influence everywhere we turned.”

The report was released five years after a landmark study, also conducted by scientists at Johns Hopkins, first reported about the pressing need to curb antibiotics in animals. Back then, public health researchers warned that continuing the practice would give rise to drug resistance. Now, Martin says, “our worst fears were confirmed.”

At a panel assembled by Johns Hopkins to discuss the results of the report, experts expressed skepticism that U.S. Congress will actually take any real steps to address this issue, and laid the blame at the feet of “the political power of industrial agriculture.” For instance, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) has been pushing for legislation to give the government more oversight over this area of the food industry for years. But her initiatives are repeatedly stalled.

Public health officials don’t mince words when they discuss the risk of growing drug resistance. Earlier this year, medical experts in England warned that the increasing prevalence of drug-resistant diseases will eventually lead to an “antibiotic apocalypse” — a time in the not-so-distant future when people will die from infections because there aren’t any drugs left to treat them. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control recently warned that the U.S. faces “potentially catastrophic consequences” if we don’t move to address this issue. And at Tuesday’s panel, a researcher from the Harvard School of Public Health noted that the risk to our health is “real and immediate” and we will eventually see “common infections become fatal.”

Leaders in the livestock industry, on the other hand, said the new Johns Hopkins report is simply a “scaremongering attack.”