Oregon could become the first state in the country to regulate agricultural use of antibiotics, should lawmakers approve bills that would prohibit giving antibiotics to healthy farm animals and require factory farms to report how the drugs are used in their operations.
More than 70 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on livestock and poultry—and not primarily to treat sick animals. Instead, factory farms often put antibiotics into the daily feed and water of healthy animals, to promote growth and prevent disease due to overcrowded and dirty conditions.
As a result, bacteria commonly present on farms are mutating into stronger, antibiotic-resistant strains, which in turn find their way to the human population through numerous pathways, including contaminated food, airborne dust blowing off farms, and water and soil polluted with contaminated feces.
"There is a near consensus among public health experts that the bulk antibiotics produced by [the animal pharmaceutical industry] are accelerating the approach of a post-antibiotics nightmare scenario, in which superbugs routinely emerge from our farms and wreak havoc on a human population living among the ruins of modern medicine," Alexander Zaitchick wrote at Salon last year.
Those experts range from the World Health Organization and the Infectious Diseases Society of America to the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, all of which signed onto a 2011 letter statingthat "the evidence is so strong of a link between misuse of antibiotics in food animals and human antibiotic resistance that FDA and Congress should be acting much more boldly and urgently to protect these vital drugs for human illness."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 2 million Americans become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.
The bills in Oregon, which have gained the support of medical providers, local food advocates, and consumer rights watchdogs, aim to curtail such antibiotic overuse and its dangerous consequences.
"Our farm is just one of thousands across the United States and around the world that offer living proof that it is not necessary to overuse antibiotics on healthy animals to raise a profitable product," said Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor, co-owner of Kookoolan Farms in the northwestern part of the state. "Oregon's farmers want to nourish the state and believe public health should be increased, not endangered, by producing food to put on our tables."
Oregon's House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources heard testimony on its bill last week, and the Senate Committee on Health Care will debate a similar proposal on Monday. The bills would only affect Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Out of Oregon's 35,000 farms, just over 100 of them are CAFOs.
Opponents of the bills say such regulation should be left up to the federal government.
But federal efforts to address the problem have been week, watchdogs say.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has addressed a part of the issue and asked pharmaceutical companies to stop selling antibiotics to animal farms for the purpose of growth promotion. OSPIRG and Friends of Family Farms say this is a voluntary program and lacks teeth. It also does not address disease prevention, which they say masks poor animal husbandry practices and attempts to offset unsanitary conditions.
Meanwhile, the White House's 'National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria,' released last week, was criticized as "a missed opportunity to take more aggressive action."
"Unfortunately, the plan falls short of protecting the public from this looming public health crisis in that it fails to adequately address the misuse of antibiotics on factory farms, relying on FDA's limited efforts to change practices through voluntary guidance," statedFood & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter.
"The Food and Drug Administration has been aware of the problems associated with the misuse of these critical, life saving drugs since at least 1977, but has not required factory farms to stop misusing them," she continued. "Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that curbing the misuse of antibiotics on factory farms would address this public health crisis and help maintain the effectiveness of these critical, life saving drugs, the meat industry continues to oppose meaningful regulation on how it uses antibiotics."