It's become something of an alarming annual affair.
Each year, the US Food and Drug Administration releases data regarding the sale of antibiotics used in animals grown for food, and each year, the numbers suggest that a larger and larger number of animals that we eat in America are being treated with antibiotics.
This week, the FDA announced that sales of antibiotics used in food producing animals rose 3 percent from 2013 to 2014, and, cumulatively from 2009 to 2014, a whopping 23 percent. The figures suggest that we've never eaten more antibiotic-treated meat and poultry, despite the fact that scientists and public health officials have been calling for decreased use of antibiotics for years.
The indiscriminate use of antibiotics in food animals is alarming for a variety of reasons, but the foremost issue is rising antibiotic resistance.
By widely and repeatedly using antibiotics that indiscriminately kill off bodily bacteria, we've created an ever-worsening problem with antibiotic-resistant superbugs. The bacteria that remains after an antibiotic is administered—i.e., the bacteria the antibiotics didn't kill, because they've become immune to the antibiotic—multiply and prosper. The next time an antibiotic is used to treat an infection, it won't be as effective. Eventually even minor ailments caused by bacteria could become highly dangerous and essentially untreatable with the methods at doctors' disposal. Some fear that if we continue to rampantly administer antibiotics, we could return to the era before antibiotics, when a common infection that is easily treatable today could cause death.
Overuse of antibiotics in animals is alarming because the same antibiotic-resistant bugs they may carry can be passed to humans. Poultry and livestock animals are pumped full of antibiotics to both prevent infection in overcrowded industrial farms and to promote growth and improve feed efficiency. Eighty percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States in 2012 were for animal use, and, alarmingly, 60 percent of those antibiotics are important to human medicine, meaning that their overuse could ultimately affect human health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million people are infected by antibiotic resistant bacteria each year, resulting in at least 23,000 deaths.
If past promises and mandates were to be believed, the use of antibiotics in animals should be on the decline. In 2013, the FDA issued voluntary guidelines to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth enhancers by December 2016, and food producers have vowed that they will cut back on antibiotic use.
"This report demonstrates what I have been saying for years: that FDA's policies have been toothless in the face of the continued, widespread misuse of life-saving antibiotics in factory farms," New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter said in a statement. "The increased use of antibiotics over the last year is particularly disgraceful."
Farmers, however, are arguing that the data does not prove that antibiotic use is on the rise.
"Sales does not equal use and use is not the same thing as resistance," said Ron Phillips, spokesman for the Animal Health Institute, which represents drug companies such as Merck Animal Health, Zoetis and Eli Lilly and Co's animal health division.
This isn't just an American problem. Though some countries, such as those in the European Union, have banned non-medicinal use of antibiotics in livestock, others have agriculture systems that abuse antibiotics to an even more alarming extent.
On Thursday, Forbes reported that a study found 15 percent of meat samples in China and 21 percent of livestock animals carried genes resistant to colistin, an antibiotic of last resort. Colistin is widely used in Chinese agriculture.
"Agricultural use of antibiotics is by far the greatest threat to us, promoting drug resistance on a grander scale than hospital use," Dr. Judy Stone, an infectious disease specialist, wrote in Forbes about the antibiotics problem. "We must get all countries to agree to eliminate colistin and carbapenem antibiotics, in particular, from animal use. They are our last-ditch antibiotics at a time when there is little drug development."
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a report saying that the use of antibiotics in livestock is leading to drug-resistant, life-threatening infections that particularly harm children. They recognized, however, that market demands lead farmers to use antibiotics.
"The fact remains that a number of studies show that low doses of antibiotics for poultry, pork, beef and other animal species do end up in getting (the animals) to market weight sooner than they otherwise would, which means farmers need to use less feed," said Dr. Jerome A. Paulson, one of the authors of the report.
There is increasing consumer awareness about meat raised with antibiotics. Even large corporations have brought the issue to the forefront, with McDonald's announcing they will stop buying chicken raised with antibiotics. But the FDA report suggests that the use of antibiotics is nevertheless rising.
Public health groups and physicians are arguing for stricter regulations on agricultural antibiotics use, such as limiting when a farmer could use an antibiotic by requiring veterinarian approval to do so.
"As the coalition has been saying for years, FDA must set clear targets for the reduction in antibiotic use," Susan Vaughn Grooters, a policy specialist at Keep Antibiotics Working said in a statement. "Otherwise, industry will continue to conduct business as usual, while the crisis of resistance continues to loom large and consumers pay the price."