By DOUG GRAVES
WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York’s 25th Congressional District, last week introduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA). The legislation is designed to stop what some call overuse of antibiotics on the farm, a practice opponents say is accelerating the growth of antibiotic-resistant diseases.
PAMTA would preserve the effectiveness of medically important antibiotics by phasing out the use of these drugs in healthy food-producing animals, while allowing their use for treatment of sick animals. Slaughter has introduced PAMTA four times since 2007. This year, she said, the legislation is updated to reflect the severity of the growing crisis.
“We are wasting antibiotics on healthy farm animals,” she said. “The overuse of antibiotics in agriculture has been conclusively shown to harm human health. More than 500 scientific articles have concluded that many lines of evidence link antimicrobial resistant human infections to foodborne pathogens of animal origin.
“And back in 1977, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acknowledged the threat of antibiotic-resistant disease and called for a reduction in the use of antibiotics in agriculture.”
Despite nearly 40 years of evidence, there has not been any substantive action to stop the abuse of antibiotics, she said. The current PAMTA would phase out the use of the eight classes of medically important antibiotics that are currently approved for non-therapeutic use in animal agriculture.
The bill clearly defines the term “non-therapeutic use” to ensure sick animals may be appropriately treated, but that any use of medically important antibiotics outside treatment of a sick animal would not be permitted.
“We’ve waited a long time for meaningful action to protect the public, but instead, we’ve gotten delays,” Slaughter said. “Even common illnesses like strep throat could soon prove fatal.”
Currently, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are intended for agricultural use. Most often these antibiotics are distributed at sub-therapeutic levels to healthy animals as a way to compensate for crowded and unsanitary conditions or to promote growth, she said.
“Antibiotic resistance is a major public health crisis,” Slaughter said. “Every year two million Americans acquire bacterial infections during a stay in a hospital or long-term care facility. In the past, these infections were cleared by antibiotics.
“But nowadays, as many as 100,000 people will die each year from these infections because 70 percent of them are resistant to one or more of the drugs commonly used to treat them.”
In addition, multi-drug-resistant bacteria, called CRE, have been found in 1 in 20 American hospitals and 1 in 6 long-term care facilities. Fifty percent of those patients, Slaughter said, will die.
“In a time when our most important medicines should be preserved and protected, they are routinely used in massive and indiscriminant quantities in agriculture, with little oversight,” she opined.
“According to the FDA, 13.5 million kilograms of antibiotics were sold for use in livestock and poultry in 2010, compared to 3.3 million kilograms sold for use in humans. It’s unacceptable that 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in this country are used in agriculture on otherwise healthy animals, rather than being preserved for the treatment of critical human illnesses.”
Slaughter said PAMTA has support. This act is backed by 450 groups, including public health organizations, scientists, the World Health Organization, American Medical Assoc., National Academy of Sciences and small farmers across the United States.
“To stop the spread of ‘superbugs,’ we need Congress to pass this bill to curb the overuse of antibiotics in food-producing animals,” said Ami Gadhia, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports.
“The declining effectiveness of antibiotics has become a national health crisis. In a national survey we took last year, 86 percent of consumers said meat raised without antibiotics should be available in their local supermarkets. Our organization urges Congress to pass this bill without delay.”
“I’m opposed to antibiotics, though I would say they have their place,” said Butch Schappacher, of Schappacher Farms in Mason, Ohio. He has raised an assortment of animals over the years.
“I raise turkeys each year and use antibiotics during the chicks’ first few weeks of their life to make sure they reach a healthy stage, but after the first weeks I stop using them. I know some farmers who are firm believers in antibiotics; I only use them in the early stages of our turkeys’ lives.”
According to Slaughter, small farms realize the importance of calling themselves antibiotic-free. Mega farms may not be heeding this call, she said.
“When our limited supply of antibiotics is used indiscriminately and without care, there are public health consequences,” she said. “It is time to put a stop to big agribusinesses doling out pharmaceuticals to health animals just because it is better for their bottom line.”
Not everybody agrees. “Antibiotics make our food supply safer and people healthier,” said Karen Meister, Congressional Affairs specialist with the FDA. “Antibiotics are a critical tool to prevent, control and treat disease in animals. In doing so, they also reduce the chance of bacterial transmission from animals to humans.
“Because antibiotic resistance has become a huge public health concern, the Food and Drug Administration has protection in place to ensure that animal antibiotics don’t affect public health,” Meister stated.
Earlier this year Slaughter sent letters to 60 fast food companies, producers, processors and grocery store chains, asking them to disclose their policies on antibiotics use in meat and poultry production.
“Very simply put, the consumer has a right to know what is in their food,” Slaughter said.