Looking to Stop Antibiotic Overuse on Factory Farms

Food & Water Watch brings campaign to foodie-haven Providence

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Gus Fuguitt arrived here less than three weeks ago, but he’s hoping Rhode Island’s capital makes history in the movement against the overuse of antibiotics in livestock.

“I’m optimistic Providence can do something big by becoming the first city to limit the use of antibiotics in farm animals,” said Fuguitt, a Madison, Wis., native who arrived in Providence on the night of Jan. 1. “Providence can be the first city to take the lead on this important issue. There’s no reason it can’t. It has a great food culture and understanding of the food system.”

Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch recently launched a grassroots campaign in seven cities to educate the public and elected officials about the health dangers of fattening up factory-farm animals with antibiotics intended to fight off infection. Fuguitt is the field organizer for the Providence campaign, based out of a small office in Wayland Square.

Antibiotics are critical tools for human medicine, but far more antibiotics are given to livestock than to sick people, and this practice is putting the health of both humans and farm animals at risk, according to at least one major report. Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Most of these drugs are routinely fed to animals to make them grow faster and to compensate for filthy conditions,” Fuguitt said. “This type of routine use of these drugs creates a perfect breeding ground of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics — many of which are the same drugs we rely on to treat infections in people.

The way that many antibiotics are used on livestock, most notably chickens, pigs and cattle, has been linked to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to various medical studies. This means that the bacteria can survive exposure to antibiotic drugs that had previously been effective in killing them.

Every year, some 2 million Americans contract antibiotic-resistant infections and 23,000 people die from these infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The overuse of antibiotics is causing life-saving drugs to lose their effectiveness.

“Our life-saving drugs are losing their effectiveness and we are spiraling into a serious health crisis,” Fuguitt said. “We need legislation to save antibiotics and stop their misuse on factory farms."

Here in Providence, and in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Paul, Seattle and Alexandria, Va., Food & Water Watch representatives are asking city councils to call on the federal government to ban the misuse of antibiotics on factory farms so that they are only being given to sick animals.

To kick off the Food & Water Watch’s "Healthy Farms, Healthy Families" campaign here, Fuguitt led a meeting Jan. 22 at the West Broadway Neighborhood Association.

In the 1950s, researchers discovered that a small, constant dose of antibiotics helped livestock grow slightly faster. Producers began using feed with antibiotics mixed in, both to promote faster growth and as an attempt to prevent infections in densely packed and unsanitary factory farms. These sub-therapeutic doses are just a fraction of the amounts typically used to treat infections. Treatment of sick animals requires just a few animals to receive medicine for a short time. Sub-therapeutic use means an entire herd or flock receives small doses for an extended period of time. This practice kills bacteria that are susceptible to the drug, leaving resistant bacteria to survive and reproduce.

“Imagine sprinkling a low dose of antibiotics on your cereal every morning,” Fuguitt said. He said such a practice would make no sense, given the advice we have all heard from doctors to take the full course of antibiotics and to only take antibiotics when needed.

However, that is essentially what happens in modern livestock production. Factory-farm animals are fed a diet tainted with antibiotics. Once antibiotic-resistant bacteria develop in a Big Ag operation, they can spread to farmers, workers and neighbors, through food produced from animals raised there and when contaminated waste enters the environment.

The risks to human health aren’t theoretical. In 2011, antibiotic-resistant salmonella caused the recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey from one plant, the third-largest meat recall in U.S. history. That meat sickened at least 136 people, causing 37 hospitalizations and one death.

Researchers also have found strong evidence that a strain of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as MRSA, originated in humans, migrated to pigs where it acquired antibiotic resistance and now is infecting humans again.

Antibiotic resistance has become a serious problem in human medicine, according to Food & Water Watch. There are few or no treatment options for some infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and pharmaceutical companies aren’t producing new treatments fast enough to replace drugs that become ineffective.

People get sicker from resistant infections, as it takes multiple rounds of increasingly stronger antibiotics to stop such an infection. Researchers estimate the national medical and social costs of antibiotic-resistant infections to be in the billions. Medical authorities are calling the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria a public health crisis. The American Public Health Association, American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, Infectious Disease Society of America and World Health Organization have all issued statements calling for restrictions on sub-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in livestock.

Despite the urgent need to address this growing public health threat, neither Congress nor the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have done enough to stop the overuse of antibiotics in food production, according to the Food & Water Watch campaign.

The FDA relies primarily on voluntary suggestions to industry, rather than withdrawing the approval of sub-therapeutic use of these important drugs. Fuguitt said Congress needs to step in to end the use of medically important antibiotics for sub-therapeutic purposes in livestock production.