Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Pork in the age of the superbug

Did you know that 70% of all antibiotics used in the US are administered to livestock on industrial farms for the purpose of stimulating growth, not to treat diseases? And they are not administered under a veterinarian's supervision. We can only guess what proportion of the 1,000,000 hospitalizations with resistant infections and of roughly 90,000 deaths attributed to these infections can be blamed on this antimicrobial free-for-all. The FDA and other agencies have been unwilling to ban such practices, and, understandably, the meat industry has not protested.

Finally, Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY), chair of the House Rules committee, has proposed a measure to ban this egregious practice, the NYTimes reports. Her proposal would "ban seven classes of antibiotics important to human health from being used in animals" and would "restrict other antibiotics to therapeutic and some preventive uses". It is about time the Congress took up this public health issue.

In an attempt at obfuscation, a spokesman for the pork producer's trade group pointed out that there are no good studies linking this rise in resistant infections in humans to use on animal farms. Really? Could it be because the meat industry has been ever so forthcoming with their usage and other data? For me there is plenty of circumstantial evidence and biologic plausibility, and, as with cigarette smoking, it will be virtually impossible to design studies that can unequivocally demonstrate attribution.

In this too we need to learn from the Europeans -- precautionary principle should reign. Let us not allow pork to throw us back to pre-antibiotic era.

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