The whistle-blower protection group Government Accountability Project on Wednesday sued the Federal Drug Administration to force the release of data on the long-documented use of antibiotics in food animals, which physicians, scientists and a long list of watchdog agencies argue is leading to antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.
The suit was reported by Mike McGraw of The Kansas City Star following a year-long investigation into the "multimillion-dollar-a-year pharmaceutical arms race in the beef industry [that] is not just about curing sick cows."
It’s also about fattening cattle cheaply and quickly, driven in part by efforts to maximize profits, according to food safety advocates. In fact, the same number of cattle today are producing twice as much meat as they did in the 1950s because of genetics, drugs and more efficient processing.
Despite decades of warnings, the federal government has failed to pass meaningful regulation of animal drug use, failed to adequately monitor the harmful residues they leave behind, and failed to stop the consumption of meat contaminated with such substances.
Leading up to to the suit, nearly 25,000 Americans sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg concerning the abuse of antibiotics in pigs, chicken, turkeys and cattle, "urging her to do a better job in helping to keep our precious antibiotics effective by asking for this critical information from Big Pharma, and making it public," the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy reports.
“How can we truly know the extent to which these drugs are causing harm if we can’t even access the information,” Amanda Hitt, director of the food integrity campaign at the Government Accountability Project, told the Star.
According a study (pdf) published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, following the May 2011 tornado in Joplin, Mo., 13 of 900 people suffered fungal and other infections from dirt and debris blown into wounds. Two children had highly antibiotic-resistant infections that drugs couldn't cure, and doctors said the overuse of antibiotics in livestock is to blame.
The Star reports:
According to the Pediatric Journal article, the antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in both children were linked to “agricultural antibiotic use, release of heavy metals, organic pollutants and spillage of fecal and pathogenic microorganisms.”
Since the 1950s, larger numbers of cattle have been confined to smaller plots of land to save money, breeding more disease. In an effort to stave off these effects, farmers regularly opt for a quick-fix by inundating their animals with high levels of antibiotics.
The animals' waste contaminates the soil with the drugs and, thus, the soil is overrun with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
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Each year, about 29 million pounds of antimicrobial drugs are used on cattle, pigs and poultry, The Star reports. It's "an intensive antibiotic regimen, even though the USDA reports that such practices contribute to antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans."
According to Food and Water Watch:
Antibiotic resistance has become a global problem. People get sicker from these infections, as it takes multiple rounds of increasingly stronger antibiotics to stop the infection, allowing the infection to progress further than it might otherwise. Fewer drug options can make it harder for doctors to treat patients with allergies and make it more likely for patients to require stronger drugs given intravenously.
But because the government won't reveal exactly how much of those drugs are used in cattle or other meat animals—it's a "trade secret," the Star reports—the Government Accountability Project sued for that information.
Opposition to antibiotic use in cattle has poured in from sources ranging from veterinarians to physicians, scientists and the World Health Organization. Even other cattle ranchers have stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion because, as rancher Bill Haw told The Star, "Given the problems, it's crazy to do so."
One legislator, Rep. Louise Slaughter, (D-NY), has advocated for legislation that would limit agricultural uses of seven antibiotics considered critical in humans, including penicillin. But the bill has never passed, because influential pharmaceutical and trade groups oppose it, arguing it “would ultimately harm animal welfare, animal health, food safety, and food security.”
Scientist Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, "They kick butt on (Capitol) Hill and they have blocked every single effort at oversight ... They would prefer that the public not know the quantities of antibiotics they are using and for what purposes, which is why they also oppose more data collection by the government."
Finally, in April, the FDA asked the beef industry for "voluntary" reductions in antibiotic use, and in August a court ordered the FDA to "stop dillydallying" and hold regulatory hearings about the use of drugs in livestock. The agency appealed the rulings.
Allen Williams, a former feedlot owner and cattle specialist at Mississippi State University, told The Star that the use of antibiotics is about the money.
“It’s pressure from pharmaceutical companies," he said. "They are making money . . . and they don’t want it to stop."
"Who’re the losers of FDA turning a blind eye?," asks Dr. David Wallinga at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "You, me—virtually anyone who stands to suffer from ineffective antibiotics when they really need them. The winners, until now, have of course been Big Pharma. So long as no one questions how and where antibiotics get used in food production, they keep profiting from selling more of these precious drugs than they ought to."