Monday, July 13, 2009

It's All Connected: Antibiotics Into Candybiotics, Health Care Reform, The First Lady's Food Agenda, and Rep. Slaughter's HR 1549

Antibiotics In Food Animals As A Public Health Ponzi Scheme...
Many healthy farm animals in the US are routinely given powerful antibiotics so they don't get ill in the future, and this is having a dire effect on the usefulness of the drugs, as antibiotic resistance increases in both animals and humans, and new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria mutate into existence. Because these animals will become food (or create food, as in egg-laying hens), it's a critical food issue that's been the subject of much debate in the health care community. Called non-therapeutic dosing, or prophylactic antibiotic use (nope, it has nothing to do with sex...) the practice is a standard--and legal--occurrence in the US agriculture industry. In fact, it's such a common practice that animal feed and animal 'nutritional beverages' are routinely available with the antibiotics already included in the ingredients. Very often, a livestock owner doesn't even need a prescription from a vet to get antibiotics for animal use. Unfortunately, overuse of medication amounts to a public health ponzi scheme: The practice of dosing healthy food animals is turning once-powerful antibiotics into the equivalent of candy.

A Health Crisis Created By Economic Imperatives...
The dangerous practice of pre-dosing food animals with antibiotics exists primarily to eliminate future economic losses for farmers who might lose livestock to potential illness. It's particularly prevalent in industrialized animal concerns (CAFOs), where livestock is massed together in hyper crowded and often filthy conditions, in which diseases can rapidly breed and spread. But smaller livestock farmers routinely engage in unnecessary antibiotic use, too, because they have a tight margin for economic error and need to guard against loss in any way possible (particularly during these tough economic times).

But there's now overwhelming scientific evidence, from more than a decade of studies conducted around the world, that overuse of antibiotics in food animals is assisting in the creation of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria as well as dramatically reducing the effectiveness of antibiotics when used for animals and humans who are actually ill. Many people have heard of MRSA--methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, often referred to as "flesh eating" bacteria--which is a strain of staph that's resistant to the broad-spectrum antibiotics once used to treat it. MRSA infections have skyrocketed in the last five years, in both human-to-human transmission, as well as in animal-to-human transmission, but it's just the tip of the infectious disease iceberg. Other bacterias--such as salmonella and campylobacter, two common food borne disease pathogens--have also become resistant to antibiotics, as have a host of other bacteria (and antibiotic resistant tuberculosis is now prevalent in urban areas, and virulent strains of bacterial pneumonia are on the uptick, too). We're already well on our way to the collapse of this particular public health ponzi scheme. If antibiotics stop being effective, as a society we automatically revert back at least a century, when fatalities from now-treatable infectious diseases will soar once again. We also shoot rapidly into a devastating future, in which newly created infectious diseases simply can't be treated with available drugs.

Rep. Louise Slaughter's HR 1549: Critical Legislation
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter
(D-NY) is seeking to put an end to the transformation of antibiotics into candybiotics with HR 1549, the Preservation of Antibiotics For Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which is an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. A microbiologist in her private life, Rep. Slaughter's critically important legislation is designed to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for treating human disease, by eliminating antibiotics from animal feed, and making it illegal to use the drugs on healthy animals, and illegal to acquire antibiotics without a prescription. More than 300 organizations representing health, consumer, agriultural, environmental, and other interests including the American Medical Association and the American Public Helth Association have come out in support of Rep. Slaughter's legislation, and she's got 43 co-sponsors for the Act (including Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) a longtime champion of food safety), but it has yet to be introduced into the House. Today, at 2:30, there's a hearing before the House Rules Committee; Rep. Slaughter is Chair of this committee, and she's seeking more co-sponsors for the Act, and engaging in a new campaign to raise awareness of the importance of the issue, on the Hill and in the general public. Last Thursday, Rep. Slaughter hosted a public screening of the new documentary Food, Inc., at the Capitol Visitor Center. The film covers, in grim detail, the kind of industrialized ag practices that are dangerous to human health--including giving healthy animals unnecessary drugs. The screening was well attended by Hill staffers, according to Ben Shannon, one of Rep. Slaughter's aides, who is overseeing the new awareness campaign, and that's a good thing, because antibiotic resistance effects a panoply of other government agencies--for instance, Homeland Security. The government has stockpiles of antibiotics in place for bio-terror attacks (such as anthrax), but if the larger population has developed resistance to antibiotics--these drugs simply won't work. Mass death is a pretty grim public health scenario, isn't it?

Will The First Lady Ever Address This Issue?
First Lady Michelle Obama has initiated a path-breaking national conversation about unburdening our health care system of the costs of preventable food-created illnesses such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease in order to enact health care reform. Over the last two months, in a series of public remarks, she's encouraged the entire nation to embrace a healthier, more active lifestyle that includes better, more nutritioous food choices, and an avoidance of processed and fast foods as staples of everyday eating; she holds that this will eliminate an estimated $120 billion in annual health care costs. But if millions of people can't be treated for infectious diseases because the food they eat is giving them resistance to antibiotics, as well as creating new strains of bacteria--that's preventable food-created illness, too, isn't it? Imagine the public health care cost of repeatedly treating an individual who is colonized by MRSA to the point of needing multiple hospital stays--but for whom the illness isn't fatal. Multiply this by millions of people catching--and living with--incurable infectious disease, and suddenly the health care system is overloaded, further, with the costs from preventable illnesses. These days, if you're aware of the science, it's difficult to talk about healthy eating and a balanced approach to food without talking about the imbalance and grave health care implications that are created by the overuse of antibiotics in food animals. Including this issue in the First Lady's health care food reform platform seems logical, but it's a highly volatile position politically, thanks to the lobbying influence of the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry, as well as the insistence of the agribusiness sector that the meds are a necessary part of doing business.

Infectious Diseases Specialists In The Obama Administration
Because it's largely economic incentives that drive the overuse of antibiotics, there could be major opposition on the Hill to HR 1574 from those Members who represent the states that are home to the majority of the industrialized agriculture concerns. But we now have two infectious disease specialists leading the FDA-- Dr. Margaret Hamburg and her deputy, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein--so this is good news for any campaign that aims to preserve the usefulness of antibiotics. In fact, Dr. Sharfstein will be testifying today in Rep. Slaughter's hearing. Dr. Thomas Frieden, the newish head of the CDC, is also an infectious disease specialist, so clearly there's an awareness in the Obama administration that infectious diseases--and maintaining our ability to fight these--is a critical issue. Only time will tell if Rep. Slaughter's Act becomes law...but if it doesn't, our food ponzi scheme pyramid may rapidly collapse.

What can you do to protect yourself from having your antibiotics turn into candybiotics? First, choose meat from food animals that aren't routinely dosed with drugs. Check your labels. Second, call or e mail your own House Member and urge him or her to co-sponsor Rep. Slaughter's legislation. And when the Act goes before the House, urge your Representative to vote for it. Aren't we done with ponzi schemes?

*Related: Jeff Dufour and Kiki Ryan of Washington Examiner sum up Thursday night's showing of Food, Inc. for Hill staffers: "The film clearly sent a message to those on the Hill of needed policy changes," they write.