Saving antibiotics, one burger at a time

COVID-19 has shown that the cracks in our healthcare system cannot withstand another pandemic. Over the past six months, I’ve watched as our government failed to take necessary actions to save lives. At every step of the way our leaders ignored the recommendations of experts and prioritized the status quo over human life.

I can’t help but draw the parallels between what we’re facing with COVID-19 and our current overuse of medically important antibiotics to produce meat. The science is clear, antibiotic resistant bacteria are among the top 12 threats to global health, and overusing the drugs fuels the problem. Yet, we continue to rely on antibiotics to produce cheap meat, at the risk of eroding this cornerstone of modern medicine.

For several months U.S. PIRG’s public health team has been focused on addressing COVID19. One of the hidden challenges of the pandemic is the time and energy it has taken away from tackling long standing health threats, like antibiotic resistance.

As the new public health fellow for U.S. PIRG, I’m relaunching our campaign to stop the overuse of medically important antibiotics.

This post represents my commitment to keeping our communities healthy. It is the first of many where I will discuss the problem, explore solutions, and congratulate change makers.

The Problem:

Drug resistant bacteria sicken nearly 3 million people in the United States, and kill at least 35,000 every year. While those numbers pale in comparison to the current COVID-19 pandemic, it’s far too high a cost of human life.

Although overusing antibiotics in human healthcare is part of the problem, roughly two thirds of the medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S go to food animals. And meat producers routinely dose otherwise healthy animals with antibiotics to counteract the stressful and unsanitary conditions of factory farming. The kicker is, overusing antibiotics in this way creates the perfect breeding ground for antibiotic resistant bacteria that can travel off the farm and make people sick.

Our Strategy:

So how do we solve the problem?

Ideally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Congress would put an end to the routine use of medically important antibiotics in meat production. These life-saving drugs should only be used to treat a diagnosed illness or in limited circumstances to control a verified disease outbreak.

Unfortunately, intense pressure from the meat industry and pharmaceutical companies has blocked most efforts to make significant change. But thanks to the leadership of Representative Jan Schakowsky, the House of Representatives recently took an important step to reduce antibiotics use in meat production. A recent appropriations bill includes language that would set a duration limit for all medically important antibiotics approved for use in food animals. Right now about a third of those drugs have no defined duration, so meat producers can give them to animals over the course of their entire lives, spurring antibiotic resistance.

While we’ve inched forward in policy change, the most significant progress has come from corporate action. Over the last six years U.S. PIRG and its partners in the Antibiotics Off the Menu coalition have mobilized consumers to call on fast food companies — some of the largest meat buyers in the country — to stop sourcing meat raised with routine antibiotic use. Now, over half of the top twenty five fast food chains, including McDonald’s, KFC, and Wendy’s, no longer serve chicken raised with the routine use of medically important antibiotics.

These corporate actions have helped shift the chicken industry away from overusing life-saving drugs. According to an industry estimate, nearly half of the broiler chickens sold in the U.S in 2014 were raised with the full spectrum of medically important antibiotics. By 2018 that number had dropped to just 8 percent, and more than 90 percent of broiler chickens were raised without the routine use of antibiotics considered important to human medicine. That’s a major win for public health.

Moving Forward:

We’ve shown that consumers care about how their food is raised, and that they can vote with their wallets. The chicken industry may have drastically changed its antibiotic use, but the rest of the meat industry is a far different story. FDA data from 2018 shows that cattle production accounts for more medically important antibiotics than any other U.S. meat sector.

The beef industry’s overconsumption of medically important antibiotics is short sighted and unsustainable. It emerges from the faulty logic that bigger is better and corporate profit is more valuable than human life. Cheap meat is not worth the cost of losing effective antibiotics.

That’s why we’re urging Wendy’s, the nation’s third-largest burger chain, to source only beef raised without the routine use of medically important antibiotics. So far the company has paid lip service to the issue, but hasn’t made a significant commitment.

We will continue to amplify the voices of experts, hold corporations accountable, and work collaboratively to ensure a future where our life-saving medicines still work.

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