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Antibiotic Resistance and Food Safety

Antibiotic resistance is a growing crisis. The overuse of antibiotics in both human medicine and animal agriculture contributes to the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections that are costly and difficult to treat. Moreover, the burden of antibiotic resistance is borne by the most vulnerable in our society: children, the elderly, and those with already weakened immune systems, such as people undergoing chemotherapy or persons with HIV/AIDS. But while doctors are actively curtailing unnecessary uses of antibiotics in human medicine, operators of CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) continue to use vast quantities of these priceless drugs every day in the feed and water of animals that are not even sick.

CAFO operators add human antibiotics to the feed of animals to accelerate animal growth and prevent diseases common in overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions. An estimated 70 percent of antibiotics produced in this country—nearly 13 million pounds per year—are used in animal agriculture for these nontherapeutic purposes. This amount is estimated to be more than four times the amount of drugs used to treat human illness.

Foodborne bacteria originating from the production of food animals cause severe and often life-threatening illnesses in the United States. The CDC estimates that 1.4 million people are infected with Salmonella each year and that there are 2.4 million Campylobacter infections. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the cost of illness and death from Salmonella alone is 2.5 billion dollars each year.

Increasingly, these foodborne infections are resistant to one or more antibiotics. CDC data shows that roughly one in five Salmonella infections is drug-resistant. Nearly 100,000 of these infections would resist treatment with at least five antibiotics. Roughly half of Campylobacter infections, or 1.2 million per year, are drug-resistant. Of these, 326,000 cases are resistant to two or more antibiotics.

The FDA is aware of the problem of antibiotic resistance due to overuse in animal agriculture, but the agency's process for reviewing and withdrawing drugs from the market is far too slow and cumbersome. A recent effort to withdraw an antibiotic from use by poultry producers due to concerns about human antibiotic resistance lasted for more than five years, costing millions of taxpayer dollars. And while the judicial proceedings dragged on, the number of cases of antibiotic resistance continued to grow.
While some producers and retailers of meat products have announced policies that take steps to curb antibiotic use, private-sector initiatives to reduce antibiotic use in animal agriculture are relatively rare, limited in scope, and difficult to verify. Federal action is needed to achieve comprehensive reductions and create a level playing field for all producers and retailers.

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