“Our worst fears were confirmed,’’ said Bob Martin, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which issued the report. The Food and Drug Administration’s statistics, he said, show that as much as 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in this country are fed to food animals.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report last month that found that 23,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections each year. The more a particular germ is exposed to antibiotics, the more rapidly it can develop resistance. Most scientists agree that overprescribing the drugs to humans is the predominant cause for bacteria evolving to outsmart them. Feeding the drugs widely to control and prevent disease in cows, pigs and chickens also is believed to play a role.
Tuesday’s study, “Industrial Food Animal Production in America,” comes five years after a landmark report on industry practices by a Pew Charitable Trusts commission of scientists working through the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Feeding animals antibiotics for breakfast, lunch and dinner plumps them up at a terrible cost, the 2008 report said, making drugs ever-less effective and bacteria more resistant.
FDA guidelines in the pipeline, Martin said, would require the industry to stop using antibiotics specifically to bulk up food animals but would continue to allow their use for disease control. But what constitutes disease control is so loosely defined, Martin said, that there would be no practical change in the use of antibiotics.
“In a couple of areas, the Obama administration started off with good intentions. But when industry pushed back, even weaker rules were issued,” he said. “We saw undue influence everywhere we turned.”
The report was authored by a commission that included ranchers, experts in public health and veterinary medicine, and former U.S. agriculture secretary Dan Glickman. Former Kansas governor John Carlin chaired the panel.
A spokeswoman for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, Emily Meredith, said producers “tend to disagree with much of what is said in the report,” have made significant progress over the past decade and have for years been using antibiotics judiciously.
The alliance, a coalition of food producers, released its own report on industry practices on Monday, defending modern farming techniques as necessary and ethical to feed a growing global population.
“Food safety in this country is the best it has ever been,” Richard Raymond, a former undersecretary for food safety and inspections at the Agriculture Department, wrote in the report’s foreword.