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Despite FDA Antibiotic Ruling, Health Risks in Industrial Farming Persist


Superbugs (Photo: CDC/Matthew J. Arduino)

Two days ago the FDA announced a ban on unapproved uses of cephalosporins (antibiotics) in food animals, the effects of which have now been determined to cause the proliferation of resistant superbugs in human populations.

Today, however, In These Times' Michelle Chen reports that the bans may have arrived too late, at least for farm workers and thier communities:

Steven Roach of the advocacy group Food Animal Concerns Trust, told In These Times that while the diseases can spread in many ways through the environment, “There's a very clear connection between farmworkers and some of the resistant infections.” Due to workplace exposures, he added, “They're at higher risk for getting resistant infections. And they also are a pathway for introducing resistant bacteria into the community. So a farm worker may just be carrying resistant bacteria if they visit somebody in the hospital, or they have children."


The "superbug" infection pathway intersects with structural health and safety threats on livestock farms. Many workers suffer from exposure to toxic gases and dust that chokes their lungs, along with inadequate access to medical care--not to mention the poverty wages, draconian immigration laws, exploitative employers, and other injustices plaguing the rural workforce. The risks are compounded by workplace oppression...


Fundamentally, the issue of antibiotic resistance isn’t about medicines or animals, but about the relationship between people and what we eat. These new disease risks point to ethical questions on industrial farming, the mass consumption of animals, and the workers at the heart of this enterprise. When basic health standards are ignored, everyone gets hurt.

The lasting effects of formerly unabashed cephalosporins usage for the general public are yet to be calculated in full. Accordingly, the Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that the FDA's new bans are anything but timely:

The order prohibiting certain uses of cephalosporin in many food-producing animals is clearly warranted, though it may be too little, and it is definitely too late. CSPI has identified at least five foodborne outbreaks since 2001 linked to cephalosporin-resistant Salmonella, which resulted in at least 200 illnesses and one death.

In addition, Russel McLendon has written today that the FDA's policies on livestock antibiotics continues to be inconsistent and dangerous:

Last month, for example, this bulletin quietly appeared before Christmas: The Food and Drug Administration is canceling a 34-year attempt to limit two antibiotics in livestock feed, despite a trough of research linking them to the rise of drug-resistant bacteria, or "superbugs".

Critics also point out the FDA's cephalosporin crackdown isn't comprehensive. It only applies to some extralabel uses of certain cephalosporins in healthy cattle, swine and poultry, partly so vets can still use the drugs to treat genuinely sick animals. But it also offers exceptions for "extralabel use of approved cephapirin products in food-producing animals," as well as extralabel use in "food-producing minor species," such as ducks or rabbits. That's weaker than an earlier FDA proposal from 2008.

The AP recalls:

This is not the first time the FDA has sought to limit cephalosporins. In 2008 the agency said it would limit the drugs for animals, citing the importance of cephalosporins for treating disease in humans. But the Bush administration reversed that decision just before it was to take effect after receiving several hundred letters from drug companies and farm animal trade groups.

In the first two years after President Brack Obama took office, FDA officials repeatedly said antibiotics in agriculture pose a serious public health threat and said they would act on the issue. But they had taken no concrete steps to limit the drugs until Wednesday's announcement.


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