As many of you know, in May of this year I transcended a 30+ year career in health care to join the organic and sustainable food and farming movement as Executive Director of NOFA-NY. During my decades in health care, misuse and overuse of antibiotics was a major public health issue, an area of significant focus and concern for those of us who saw firsthand how overuse and improper use of antibiotics to treat human illness was having a horrible and unintended consequence on our health. New breeds of antibiotic resistant and sometimes deadly “super bugs” such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) were becoming prevalent in hospitals and spreading in the wider community. It is horrible to watch someone contract an antibiotic-resistant illness suffer such health consequences. More than 2 million people in the United States suffer from antibiotic-resistant diseases every year, and more than 20,000 die from them annually. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have taken this seriously and for years have included consumer and provider education regarding antibiotic use on their website. The problem is not small, and despite the best efforts of many health care professionals, public health officials, and consumers, it continues to grow.
When I started my job with NOFA-NY, I thought I was leaving behind the public health impacts of antibiotics. I avoid antibiotics when possible and use them responsibly when required. I eat mainly vegetarian, and when I do eat meat or dairy I ensure that it’s at least antibiotic free, if not certified organic (which means no antibiotics have been used). Krys Cail’s article in the Fall 2014 Issue of NOFA-NYs New York Organic News surprised even me, a veteran of the healthcare industry and a self-proclaimed responsible eater! I was shocked to learn that the use of antibiotics in livestock (even that which I choose not to eat) is potentially affecting my health and your health, too. A whopping 80% of antibiotic drugs, by weight, are used in the livestock industry! The driving force behind this high use of antibiotics in conventional agriculture is the practice of feeding livestock low doses of antibiotics routinely in order to prevent illness in crowded living conditions and to promote growth. In her article titled, “Foolish Practice,” Krys Cail, an agricultural development consultant and active member of NOFA-NY’s policy committee, describes the current issues and impacts of antibiotics in conventional agriculture and the health consequences this can have for all of us – even those of us who are vegetarians or who eat organic, antibiotic-free meat and dairy whenever possible.
Not one to take this lightly, I went to the health care providers’ “bible” – back to the CDC website. There I found a strong alarm:
“Antibiotics must be used judiciously in humans and animals because both uses contribute to the emergence, persistence, and spread of resistant bacteria. Resistant bacteria in food-producing animals are of particular concern. Food animals serve as a reservoir of resistant pathogens and resistance mechanisms that can directly or indirectly result in antibiotic resistant infections in humans.”
“Scientists around the world have provided strong evidence that antibiotic use in food-producing animals can have a negative impact on public health.”
In fact, a 2013 study published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine found conclusive evidence that a person’s risk of contracting MRSA is significantly higher if he or she lives near a conventional hog farm or near a field fertilized with manure from a conventional hog farm. This is just one of many examples of how the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock impacts public health.
We know that all farmers, both conventional and those who practice organic and sustainable methods, want to produce healthy, good food. Many conventional farmers who feed antibiotics routinely to their animals would prefer to stop doing so. However, until the practice is banned, market competition acts as enough pressure to force these farmers to feed antibiotics routinely to prevent illness and encourage animal growth in line with their peers’ production. This is not about hurting or blaming farmers. It is not about appropriate use of antibiotics to treat illness. It is about preventing mis-use and overuse of antibiotics in animals as well as people for the health and well-being of both. If you would like to take action on this issue, you can check out Food & Water Watch’s campaign.