When historians look back on our time, one question they’re likely to ask is this: How could people have been so stupid as to cripple the lifesaving power of antibiotics by letting farmers pump cows, pigs and chickens full of them?
It’s a clear case of putting profits before people’s lives, and if the FDA and Congress won’t act, California should show them how.
Scientists have been trying for 40 years to get the FDA to ban — or at least slow — the practice of pumping large amounts of antibiotics into farm animals. This widespread use has led bacteria to develop resistance to the drugs, whose therapeutic value for humans is gradually destroyed.
Fully 75 percent of antibiotic use today is in feed additives for farm animals to promote faster growth and reduce the risk of disease, especially in overcrowded factory farms. The European Union in 2006 recognized the risk and banned the use of antibiotics for these purposes. But in the United States, the politically powerful farm industry has beaten back every attempt by downplaying the risk and threatening higher meat prices. Both arguments are bogus.
The Centers for Disease Control last week for the first time quantified the number of Americans — 23,000 — who now die every year from antibiotic-resistant infections. More frightening, last year 2 million Americans fell ill to drug-resistant bacteria. As antibiotics become less and less effective, more people will die from these infections.
As to rising prices, a National Academy of Sciences study found that banning the use of antibiotics in farm animals for purposes other than curing disease would result in a consumer cost increase of just $5 to $10 per person per year — a pittance to pay for preserving the ability of humans to fight infection.
Health threats in the national food supply demand federal action. But the FDA and Congress have known about this danger since at least 1977, and all they’ve done so far is to politely ask the industry to voluntarily, if it wouldn’t mind, reduce antibiotic use. Factory farmers yawned and ignored them.
If the FDA and Congress continue to ignore this very serious threat to public health, California should set rules for meat raised or sold in the state. It is a huge market — and even if factory farmers across the country try to ignore it, consumers are likely to take notice.San Jose Mercury News