Why Is It Still Legal to Use Human Antibiotics on Farm Animals?

There has been a bill to make it illegal since 1999, but congress won't touch it.

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Sep 25 2015, 6:50pm

Photo by Øivind/

There's been a lot of talk about antibiotic resistance in Washington over the last few years,and it's no wonder why: 23,000 people in the US die of antibiotic-resistant infections each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The White House has gone to great lengths to figure out how we might be able to put a stop to superbugs and curb our use of antibiotics, particularly in agriculture. So why aren't we doing the one thing that would seemingly nip the problem in the bud: make human antibiotics illegal, unless absolutely necessary, in farm animals?

"I've tried my best to scare everybody," said House Representative Louise Slaughter, a Democrat representing New York who has been trying to pass just such a law for the last 16 years. "It's been an uphill battle because we don't have any help from the administration or any federal agencies."

We've known the dangers of using medically-important antibiotics as growth promoters (i.e. to plump up our chickens, pigs, and cows) in agriculture since the 60s, yet the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies have only take baby steps towards phasing out human antibiotics on farms. The most recent change: a request by the FDA to get drug manufacturers to voluntarily stop labeling antibiotics as growth promoters—thereby making it illegal to use them as such—doesn't come into effect until the end of next year, and still leaves plenty of room for farmers to use medically-important antibiotics for other reasons, like to prevent disease. Consumers pressuring corporations like McDonald's are affecting more change than government agencies. Can't we just make it illegal and be done with it?

It worked in Denmark. In the 90s, Denmark made it illegal to use antibiotics in pigs and chickens for non-therapeutic reasons (i.e. as a growth promoter). The use of antibiotics in pig production dropped by more than 50 percent, and it didn't even hurt the industry. So why don't we do it here? Well, some politicians, like Slaughter, have tried.

The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) was first introduced in 1999 by then-representative Sherrod Brown (who is now a senator), though under a different title. It died after being punted to a subcommittee. It's been re-introduced every other year since then, including this year, with Slaughter taking up the torch after Brown left the house, but has never gained any traction.

The bill would make it illegal to use medically-important antibiotics in farm animals for non therapeutic use. In this case, the bill defines non-therapeutic use as the "administration of antibiotics to an animal through feed and water for purposes (such as growth promotion, feed efficiency, weight gain, or disease prevention) other than therapeutic use or non-routine disease control." In other words: you couldn't use a human antibiotic in an animal unless the animal was actually sick, or facing a specific risk.

"You should never give an antibiotic to anybody, human or animal, unless they're ill," Slaughter told me over the phone. "We want animals that are sick to be treated, but we don't want farmers using antibiotics as a growth promoter or as a way to allow animals to survive in some pretty unspeakable conditions."

But she said lobbyists from the meat production sector have made the bill virtually untouchable, which is why it never gains any ground in Congress. I reached out to groups representing chicken, pork, and beef farmers, all of whom said they were against the bill.

"The bill would make it so you have to let your animal get sick before you can treat them," said David Warner, communications director for the National Pork Producers Council. "Let's put it simply: would you rather have meat from an animal that was sick during its lifetime or one that was healthy?"

Warner said that, with pigs especially, the issue isn't as black and white as PAMTA would lay it out to be. There are times of year when pigs are more susceptible to certain illnesses and farmers rely on antibiotics to prevent the animals from getting sick in the first place. He also said piglets are prone to infections when they're first weaned from their mothers, and could get sick or even die if farmers couldn't preemptively administer antibiotics.

And meat producers aren't the only ones lobbying against PAMTA: the American Veterinary Medical Association strongly opposes the bill, saying it goes too far and would limit vets from being able to prevent disease outbreaks.

"It's typical of Congress to say 'oh, here's a problem, we'll pass a law and it will be gone,'" Warner said. "It never works that way."

Meat producers are largely on board with the FDA's new rules and, though the requirements are voluntary, all affected drug companies have agreed to comply with them (though only one drug has actually changed its label so far). In theory, this should eliminate the biggest misuse of antibiotics in agriculture—growth promotion—bringing us closer in line to Denmark's strategy.

Maybe passing a law making antibiotics illegal on the farm is a bit harsh, but so is a world in which antibiotics are no longer effective, as the World Health Organization grimly predicted if we don't start to drastically curb our use, on and off the farm. Hopefully the FDA's requirements will have the effect that proponents claim, because we're long overdue for some change, and if the last 16 years are any indication, that change isn't coming from Congress.