It’s a matter of public health

Although fears of a swine flu pandemic have faded, this is no time to lose sight of how easily infectious diseases can pass back and forth among humans and food animals. The fact remains that our food production system needs significant improvements as it is nurturing the spread of diseases and then making it hard to fight them. One important solution is a bill currently in Congress that would prevent factory farms from misusing the antibiotics that save our lives.

For years, the government and medical professionals have warned against overusing antibiotics. Yet federal law still lets farmers misuse these drugs.

Factory farms don’t give drugs to livestock only when they’re sick, or to stop specific infections from spreading among the animals. Instead, antibiotics – including many that are crucial to fighting human diseases – are given to food animals to compensate for the often unsanitary, crowded conditions found on many factory farms. Up to 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in this country are given to animals raised for food, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. 

Constant, low-dose antibiotics kill off weak bacteria, while the strongest survive and multiply. These bacteria become increasingly resistant to more and more types of antibiotics. At some point, the drugs stop working altogether.

Once antibiotic-resistant bacteria develop, they can exchange genetic material with other microbes, creating additional types of germs that antibiotics can’t kill. The new combinations make “superbugs” which, because they are immune to existing antibiotics, represent a serious threat to human health. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be transmitted to people, making food-borne illnesses like E. coli and Salmonella even more dangerous. 

Germs bred on factory farms may spread to people through manure-contaminated soil, water, crops and even the air. Drug-resistant bacteria also can spread to people by handling or eating pork and other meats. Infections may spread to farm workers’ families and communities, then to the general population.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 64 percent of infectious diseases that affect humans originate in animals. Stunningly, no federal agency keeps close tabs on how many people develop antibiotic-resistant infections. The livestock industry’s claim – that the threat of such diseases has leveled off – isn’t supported by solid data.

The Institute of Medicine estimated in 1998 that antibiotic resistance adds $4 billion to $5 billion to health care costs annually – and, like bacteria, that number has undoubtedly multiplied in the past decade.

The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009 (PAMTA) would phase out the use of antibiotics vital to human health from factory farms unless animals or herds are actually diseased. 

The legislation is co-sponsored by New Hampshire’s Reps. Paul Hodes and Carol Shea-Porter. A similar bipartisan bill was introduced in the Senate, but our senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Judd Gregg, aren’t yet co-sponsoring it. Gregg’s absence is especially noteworthy because he holds a senior position on the health committee with jurisdiction over the issue, and he supports another food safety measure.

Nationwide, more than 350 medical, public health, consumer, environmental and agricultural groups support PAMTA. The New Hampshire Public Health Association is among them.

Whatever their political affiliation, the people of New Hampshire are known for common sense. PAMTA is designed to get government to do one of its fundamental jobs: protect human health when individuals cannot.

Kristina Diamond is policy director of the New Hampshire Public Health Association.

Categories: Opinion