Every year about two million Americans get infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria. Of those, 23,000 die. That’s the population of Newberg, Oregon.
To try to maintain the efficacy of the remaining antibiotics, federal regulators are imposing new rules on their large scale use in farming.
Really big farms and feed lots routinely put antibiotics in their animal feed and water. The aim is to prevent disease outbreaks in the massive herds.
Charlie Fisher with the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group calls it a rampant overuse of precious drugs.
Patients are regularly finding themselves in hospitals now, being told that there’s just one more antibiotic the doctor can prescribe — and if it doesn’t work – they’re out of luck.
One report out of the U.K. estimated that by 2050, more people could be dying from antibiotic-resistant bacteria than from cancer.
Doctors have taken big steps in recent years to curb the use of antibiotics among humans. But the same can’t be said in agriculture.
The CDC says when animals are given antibiotics for things like ‘growth promotion,’ and ‘increased feed efficiency,’ bacteria are exposed to low doses over a long period of time. That’s the kind of exposure may lead to the growth of resistant strains.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is well aware of the problem and that’s why it’s putting new rules into effect.
Starting Jan. 1, medicated feed and water will only be allowed under the supervision of a veterinarian.
Jenny Dresler, with the Oregon Farm Bureau, said their 7,000 farming and ranching families will be taking the new steps.
“You’re going to see a very different and very much closer relationship between farmers and their animals and their veterinarians,” Dresler said.
Dresler said farmers care about their animals and they recognize the problem.“It’s a pretty significant overhaul of where we were two years ago,” she said.
Still, some people say the new rules don’t go far enough and can easily be circumvented. For example, one rule says antibiotics can no longer be labeled: “growth-promoting.”
Fisher said farmers are still going to use antibiotics, whatever they’re labeled.
“We think there’s a good chance that many farms will simply switch from using antibiotics for growth promotion to disease prevention,” he said, “and it won’t address the overuse of antibiotics at all.”
As a result, Fisher said OSPIRG is pushing a stronger bill in Oregon that would make it illegal to give medically important antibiotics to healthy farm animals.
He said there are legislators in health committees in both the Oregon House and Senate willing to sponsor the bill.
“Actually, the state of California passed a very similar law (last year) to the one that we’re proposing,” Fisher said. “Other states are looking at it as well.”
“And there are plenty of farms that have done this already, which shows that you can run a profitable enterprise without using antibiotics in a routine manner.”
Fisher said the bill would still allow antibiotic use to prevent the spread of disease once it has occurred — or after an animal has a medical procedure.
Still, the Oregon Farm Bureau calls the proposal “unnecessary.”
Meanwhile, California legislators are already taking the next step — drafting a bill to track all the infections and deaths caused each year by antibiotic-resistant superbugs.