Do Antibiotics in Foods Cause Increased Infections?

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In the state of New York, Democratic Representative Louise Slaughter has introduced a federal bill called H.R. 1549 – Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009. The law would serve to restrict the usage of the seven most common and effective classes of antibiotics for human use, or to treat sick animals only. A similar law was defeated in the state of California in July.

Food animal production accounts for 70% of the antibiotics used in the United States, used for purposes such as growth promotion and disease prevention. When the animal is processed for foods, antibiotic residue can remain in the muscle and organs that humans eat for meat. People who eat this food can then theoretically receive low doses of antibiotics every day, reducing the effectiveness of the drugs.

Overuse of antibiotics can increase the spread of bacteria resistance. A Tufts University study from 2005 found that antibiotic resistant infections have added $50 billion to the annual cost of American health care. A World Health Organization executive summary stated that there is clear evidence of human health consequences due to resistant organisms resulting in non-human use of antibiotics. These include infections that would not have otherwise occurred, including Methicillian Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA).

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Medical organizations such as the American Medical Association, the Infectious Disease Society of America, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all indicted livestock antibiotics for the increasing bacterial resistance facing our population. The Food and Drug Administration also supports the effort to reduce the amount of antibiotics feed to livestock. The New England Journal of Medicine called for the discontinuance of antibiotics in animal feed back in 2001.

Those that oppose the measure cite a 2003 article in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy that found the actual danger of the use of antibiotics in food animals to be small, and discontinuing use may be a disadvantage to both human and animal health. The authors of the study state that the majority of antibiotic resistance has arisen from physicians over-prescribing medication and that the low amount of drug products found in food are destroyed by cooking.

In a statement by the Animal Health Institute, proponents of antibiotics in food production state that several layers of protection are put into place to ensure that the antibiotics used to keep animals healthy are safe for the general public. The FDA finalized a stringent approval process in 2003 and food safety monitoring programs are in place to track the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

European countries have banned the use of non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animals raised for food production.

Sources: World Health Organization, Animal Health Institute, the Food and Drug Administration, and the New England Journal of Medicine.

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