Antimicrobials: Unwanted Dinner Guests

BY GABRIELLE EISENBERG

When you take that first bite into your delicious steak, do you ever wonder about the cow from which it came? Most likely you just think about its tenderness or contemplate whether it is actually necessary to add that steak sauce sitting across the table. However, it may be worthwhile to overcome this taste-centered thinking and really question the origins of your meal. In recent years, the use of antimicrobials — drugs that target viruses and bacteria and other pathogens — has largely increased in agriculture — specifically in animals that we eat or that produce our food. When first hearing this fact, it is possible that this practice’s implications are not obvious. However, upon closer examination, the severity of this problem is apparent — the indiscriminate use of these drugs is causing an alarming rate of antibiotic resistance. As consumers, we have a responsibility to question the ethics of such practices and determine how they and their consequences can be combated.

The first question one should ask is why antimicrobials are used so casually. According to Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), these drugs are used “for growth promotion, feed efficiency, and routine disease prevention in food animals.” In other words, using antimicrobials ensures a greater output of product, which in turn brings in a greater profit. Consequently, these animals are exposed to far more drugs than are necessary, which leads to resistance. In a 2013 report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) delineates the sequence of this process. Basically, the administered drugs kill both the good and bad bacteria present in the animal’s body, leaving just a few naturally resistant bacteria behind. These bacteria then multiply unaffected by the drugs and are free to then transfer some of their genes to other bacteria, allowing them to be resistant as well. As the bacteria continue to proliferate, the resistant strain takes over and cannot be treated with antibiotics.

This brings us to the second question: How does antimicrobial resistance in animals cross over to humans? This process is a bit more complicated, but the CDC provides a few helpful examples. Each scenario begins with the development of resistant bacteria in an animal, but one process is more direct. In this chain of events, the animal meat is not handled correctly, allowing for the bacteria that remain to be spread upon consumption. In the other more indirect process, the bacteria are spread to crops through fertilizer and water that contains animal waste. Waste particles can remain on the crops and again, upon human consumption, the bacteria spread.

Regardless of the journey bacteria take to the human body, the result is the same — an increased risk for serious infections. Another report released by the ISDA says, “methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), kills more Americans every year (~19,000) than emphysema, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, and homicide combined” — and that is but one organism of many. A problem that may seem insignificant or unimportant at first is actually leading to a public health crisis. The final, most important question to ask is: What is being done to combat this growing problem?

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) main strategy is to change the status of many over-the-counter drugs to that of prescription, and revise current prescription regulations. Part of this plan includes working with the drug companies in a cooperative approach. The FDA says the manufacturers would “voluntarily work with FDA to revise the approved use conditions for their medically important antimicrobial drug products to remove production … and bring the remaining therapeutic uses under veterinary oversight.” This allows for important medicines to still be available to animals but at the discretion of trained medical professionals. If drug companies change the labeling of their products themselves, the FDA does not have to review every single antimicrobial drug — this will prevent continued interruption to the animals’ health and will serve as the most efficient way to make crucial changes in public health legislation. Antimicrobial resistance is not solely caused by the actions of the agriculture industry; antimicrobials have been overused in medicine as well. However, as consumers of these food items, we must question the ethics of such abuses because we are facing the consequences of years of complacency. If you would like more information regarding the actions the FDA is taking against this growing problem, you can visit the FDA’s website, www.fda.gov.

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