Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the salmonella outbreak linked to tainted chicken from the Foster Farms facility in Livingston, continues to sicken people nationwide. The total victim count now stands at 524 people, the majority of whom live in California.
The outbreak has hospitalized a startling 37 percent of its victims, which is considerably higher than the average rate. According to the CDC, the strains of salmonella linked to the outbreak are resistant to multiple antibiotics, including tetracyclines, penicillins, sulfas and aminoglycosides, which are among the most commonly used in animals raised for food. The CDC also notes that antibiotic resistance can be associated with increased risk of hospitalization in infected individuals.
In fact, approximately 90 percent of animal antibiotics in the U.S. are sold for use in animal feed or water, often for reasons other than treating active disease, such as growth promotion, or to compensate for overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions. This overuse and misuse of antibiotics has been proven to contribute to the spread of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria – or “superbugs” – including through meat, like the one implicated in the Foster Farms outbreak.
Food and Drug Administration data show that about 15 percent of turkey and chicken on store shelves contains salmonella, which is resistant to antibiotics about 75 percent of the time. With 38 billion pounds of chicken produced each year, that’s a lot of resistant salmonella getting out – and salmonella is just one of many resistant bugs routinely found on meat.
So what is being done to address this problem?
Unfortunately, not enough. The FDA has long recognized that using antibiotics in this way creates antibiotic-resistant bacteria, yet the agency recently proposed to weaken an existing federal rule governing how feed drugs that require veterinary supervision, known as veterinary feed directive drugs, are administered. The FDA also has left open a huge loophole in its main drug guidance by neglecting to meaningfully address the use of drugs sold for routine disease prevention. Since dose, duration, prevalence and risk of antibiotic resistance in disease prevention uses can be identical to that of growth promotion, which the agency is seeking to phase out, it is difficult to see how the guidance will result in the decreased nontherapeutic use of antibiotics.
Simply put: The combination of the prevention loophole and the weakened veterinary supervision rule means the amount of antibiotics used in animal agriculture is likely to continue at its current high level.
In light of this lack of adequate federal oversight, it’s imperative that states strengthen laws to better prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs by reducing the unnecessary use of antibiotics in food animal production and requiring reporting on antibiotic use to ensure that we can track progress and identify high-risk uses.
The 524 victims of the Foster Farms outbreak illustrate how easily antibiotic-resistant bacteria can spread far and wide. How many more people must be put at risk before we take meaningful action?
Wood chairs the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition and is executive director of Food Animal Concerns Trust.