Overuse of antibiotics
reduces their punch
The issue: Meat producers routinely
use drugs in animals to spur growth.
If the widespread use of antibiotics in food animals hasn't been high on the list of national concerns, the threats of anthrax exposure and the potential for further bioterrorism should certainly put the issue up there.
The common practice of pumping animals full of antibiotics to enhance their growth -- and subsequently the profits of meat producers -- should be banned, as it has by the European Union. If not, Americans could find themselves vulnerable to bacteria that have developed a strong resistance to drugs.
For decades, physicians and scientists have warned that the routine use of antibiotics would eventually render them useless. Three new studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine show that resistant bacteria are so prevalent in commercial meat and poultry that they are passed on to people who eat them. If these people become ill, they may not be able to find relief in antibiotics.
The overuse of antibiotics in medical treatment has contributed to the problem. For this reason, doctors have urged people worried about anthrax not to take Cipro, the powerful drug used to treat the disease, unless necessary.
Reports estimate that 26.6 million pounds of antibiotics annually are administered to farm animals to promote growth; only 2 million pounds are used to treat active infections. By comparison, 3 million pounds are used in humans each year.
In a study by the Food and Drug Administration and the University of Maryland, scientists found salmonella, a leading cause of food poisoning, in chicken, beef, turkey and pork at three Washington, D.C., supermarkets. The salmonella was 84 percent resistant to at least one antibiotic and 53 percent to at least three others. One virulent strain resisted nine of 12 available antibiotics.
Even more alarming, the studies suggested that resistance can spread to many types of infections because genes that bestow resistance can jump from one organism to another.
For years, the FDA has been trying to tighten control of antibiotic use in animals, but meat producers and the drug makers who supply them have challenged a ban. The Animal Health Institute, a trade group that represents veterinary drug manufacturers, argues that antibiotics are necessary to raise food animals. However, doctors and researchers say the practice is one of convenience. They recommend that antibiotics be used only when the animals are ill and that certain antibiotics critically important in human treatment never be used in animals.
Before Sept. 11, when bioterrorism seemed far removed from American life, policymakers could set aside concerns about control of antibiotics. With the new clear and present danger, they should not do so.
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