The overuse of antibiotics in livestock is a growing concern in the wake of evolving drug-resistant “superbugs” like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MDR-TB) and the ST131 strain of Escherichia coli (E. Coli). According to U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data, almost 80% of all antibiotics sold in 2009 were reserved for livestock and poultry, 90% of which was mixed into their feed or water to speed growth and avert illness in crowded conditions. While this generates a market of antibiotic-rich meat, vegetarians cannot count themselves as immune, as the two trillion tons of animal waste produced annually by farm animals in the U.S has been shown to contaminate ground and surface water with undigested antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Last week, in response to growing pressure from the medical community and consumer advocate demand, the FDA declared their plans to restrict the use of cephalosporin antibiotics for disease prevention in cattle, swine, chickens and turkeys beginning this April. Cephalosporins are used in humans to treat pneumonia, skin, urinary tract and diabetic foot infections as well as pelvic inflammatory disease and strep throat. Newer cephalosporins are the antibiotics of choice, particularly among pediatricians, for treating serious Salmonella infections.
“We believe this is an imperative step in preserving the effectiveness of this class of important antimicrobials that takes into account the need to protect the health of both humans and animals,” said Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods.
Although the initiative is ground-breaking, it is also minute as cephalosporins make up less than 1% of overall factory farm antibiotic use. In 2009, factory farms administered 28.8 million pounds of antibiotics into livestock, of which only 91,113 pounds were cephalosporins. And in 2010, the use of cephalosporins plunged 41% to 54,207 pounds despite total antibiotic use rising, including human drugs like penicillin, which jumped 43% to 1.9 million pounds.
“This is a modest first step by the FDA, but we’re really just looking at the tip of the iceberg,” said Congresswoman and microbiologist Louise Slaughter (D-NY). “We don’t have time for the FDA to ploddingly take half-measures. We are staring at a massive public health threat in the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. We need to start acting with the swiftness and decisiveness this problem deserves.”