If It Ain’t Sick, Don’t Treat It
Posted: 5:17PM March 17th, 2014 | Comments
If It Ain’t Sick, Don’t Treat It:
Environmental and Human Health Effects of Non-Therapeutic Antibiotic use on Animals
February 28, 2014 marked the start of the fourth annual Making the Connection: Environmental Health Across Lifespan conference in Madison. The goal of this conference is to get health care professionals into one room to examine expert research and to “make connections” between environmental issues and public health. I attended on behalf of Sustain Dane.
As I walked into the conference, I noticed a crowd full of health professionals from a wide array of disciplines, many of whom were physicians from Madison-area hospitals or professors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I even spotted Dr. Jonathan Patz, Director of the Global Health Institute, where I received my Global Health Certificate at UW-Madison. Feeling a bit inept that the only letters following my name were “BS”, I took a seat among a sea of MDs.
I quickly learned that many health professionals look forward to this conference each year because it is an engaging way for them to get the latest information on emerging scientific research, clinical application, and public health and advocacy efforts. In addition to being a wellspring of theoretical and practical knowledge, the conference is open to the public and FREE for students, making it a great opportunity for anyone to learn about the environmental issues that are threatening our health and wellbeing today and the steps that health professionals are taking to create a healthy and sustainable environment for all in Wisconsin.
The conference centered on the idea that environmental issues can become serious public health issues, some with more devastating consequences than others. The presentation that struck me the most was on the growing public health threats caused by excess antibiotic use in meat and poultry production.
Dr. David Wallinga, founder of the nonprofit organization, Healthy Food Action, presented his findings on antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic use on animals has been ubiquitous in the past half century as a way to make meat production more efficient, but recently, professionals have begun to see the effects on human and environmental health. According to Wallinga, continued use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in meat production will lead to greater antibiotic-resistant infections among humans and cause other ecological problems like soil or water contamination from agricultural runoff. Thus, it would advantageous both for the sustainability of human health and our environment to decrease or eliminate the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics on animals.
While most MDs probably understand the basics of antibiotic resistance well before they enter medical school, it may be difficult for consumers to become fully informed on the effects of antibiotic use, and more difficult when there are ever-changing policies on drug regulations. I’ll give you the quick-and-dirty on antibiotic resistance:
Animals can be administered antibiotics in two ways: therapeutic and non-therapeutic dosing. For example, if a cow is sick with a bacterial infection and is given antibiotics, it is considered a therapeutic use of antibiotics. Conversely, if a cow is healthy and is given feed mixed with antibiotics, it is considered non-therapeutic administration. Animals are given non-therapeutic antibiotics in their feed for two reasons: to act as a growth promoter and to prevent infections that could hinder or slow production. Antibiotics are administered to livestock as a preventative measure because they sometimes live in confined conditions that make them more susceptible to disease and infection. As Dr. Wallinga presented, the issue with non-therapeutic antibiotic administration is that it allows antibiotic strains of bacteria to form and flourish, especially in confined and unsanitary conditions. As antibiotic use on animals persists, new bacteria strains can develop a resistance to the very medication intended to treat them. Antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria can be passed along to humans through the supply chain, which usually ends at our dinner table. According to the CDC, there is “strong evidence that antibiotic use in food animals can lead to resistant infections in humans.”
The rise in antibiotic-resistant diseases makes it more difficult to treat humans with existing antibiotic medications. This elicits greater public health and financial consequences locally and globally. According to Dr. Wallinga, due to increases in antibiotic resistance, more patients now receive antibiotics that were previously held in reserve as the first line of treatment, like the antibiotic vancomycin. And this isn’t without cost. Direct treatment of antibiotic-resistant infections costs Americans $20 billion annually, with an additional $35 billion cost in missed work or other costs to society.
As someone who has worked in healthcare, I have seen patients’ hospitalizations lengthen due to the institutional spread of antibiotic-resistant infections. Not only that, but healthcare staff have the arduous task of trying to prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant infections from within the hospital. Although the CDC recommends that healthcare workers glove up and gown up as a universal precaution, still, studies show that these efforts may decrease only some resistant infections, like MRSA, but not others like vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE).
So what does this all mean for consumers? How can we become smarter, more informed meat and poultry consumers? How can we avoid becoming one of the nearly ONE MILLION annual antibiotic-resistant infections?
Here are some actionable choices that you as a consumer can make to ensure that you are not consuming antibiotic-treated meats or poultry:
1. You can become knowledgeable about current food label requirements and US food policies.
For example, look for the USDA Organic label:
The USDA Organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.
Whole Foods shoppers might be familiar with the 365 Everyday Value label:
The 365 Everyday Value seal verifies that the dairy cows are fed with 100% organic feed with no antibiotics or hormones. Whole Foods’ cattle and buffalo are not fed antibiotics, growth hormones, or animal byproducts, and must be range-free fed for at least 2/3 of their lives. Pigs and poultry are also not fed antibiotics or animal byproducts.
To find more information on organic policies and label requirements, please visit the USDA website: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/NOPOrganicStandards
For more on the good, the bad, and the ugly of other food and product labels, visit the “Behind the Label” column at ecosalon.com.
2. You can get to know your food and farmer –
Buy directly from sustainable livestock farms at your local farmer’s market or become a CSA member so that you can create a relationship with your farmer and learn how your meat was produced. More specifically, find out if the farmer used sub-therapeutic antibiotics during meat production or not.
3. You can write a letter to your congressmen urging policy makers to change regulations on non-therapeutic antibiotic use on animals.
Health professionals in Wisconsin are aware of the threats antibiotic overuse poses to public health and they are working to create changes in policy, chief among them being Dr. Wallinga. Although regulations occur at a policy level, Dr. Wallinga urges us to also create change at an individual level by challenging conventional wisdom. Fortunately, there is hope for change in drug regulation policies in the United States. Other countries, like Denmark, have paved the way for change since their ban of non-therapeutic antibiotics in farm animals in 1999. A letter to congress from an informed and concerned citizen is a step towards initiating change.
The overuse of non-therapeutic antibiotics in meat production can become a serious threat to human health and the environment we live in. It is our responsibility as individual, engaged citizens to remain informed and involved in promoting sustainable changes that can protect our health and environment.
About Andrea Slinde
Andrea is a Communications Volunteer at Sustain Dane. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with a Bachelor’s degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders as well as Global Health. She is currently a Workplace CSA Intern at FairShare CSA Coalition and works at GRAZE on the capitol square. She is passionate about food and became involved in Madison’s local food movement after interning with Slow Food UW in the spring of 2013. She is eager to learn about sustainable food economies and to impact the health of individuals through food.