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This is the first in a series of blogs building the case to end antibiotics abuse in the U.S. food system.

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With our modern conveniences, it’s hard to imagine taking a step back nearly 100 years to the 1920s. Mass production of automobiles had only just begun, Hollywood was rising to prominence and power in Los Angeles, and in 1928 Alexander Fleming discovered life-saving penicillin.

It’s easy to reflect on how each of these institutions shape our present, but harder to imagine what life was like in a cart-and-buggy world, where an unfortunate cut or scrape could have meant the end for those with compromised immune systems.

Unfortunately, where antibiotics are concerned, we are indeed winding back the clock.

The CDC estimates that every year at least 2 million Americans experience antibiotic-resistant infections, and of those infected at least 23,000 die.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that every year at least 2 million Americans experience antibiotic-resistant (AR) infections, and of those infected at least 23,000 die. A recent UK review projected 10 million deaths annually — surpassing cancer deaths — on a global scale by 2050 if we don’t take action to prevent the spread of resistance.

Trouble on the Farm

So what’s happening? Why are antibiotics losing their efficacy? When bacteria are exposed to and survive antibiotics, they multiply and spread their genetic resistance to other bacteria. Even Fleming was aware of resistance and urged cautious use, but since Fleming’s discovery we’ve flooded antibiotics into the market.

In part, doctors are over-prescribing, preferring to err on the side of caution when unsure of what ails their patients; and, patients don’t always follow instructions when it comes to antibiotics. But there is a much more disturbing culprit with more widespread effects: the factory farm.

Factory farms are industrial-scale animal factories that crank out billions of pounds of meat every year. Often animals are raised in confined and filthy conditions — an ideal environment for bacterial growth. Low doses of antibiotics are routinely fed to livestock primarily to promote faster growth, but also, in theory, to prevent the animals from getting sick from their unsanitary habitat. This practice, called subtherapeutic use, promotes the spread of antibiotic resistance.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that nearly 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are sold for agricultural purposes. The FDA has known for decades the spread of resistance is a problem, but the regulatory system has been completely inadequate in dealing with the problem, preferring industry-supported voluntary regulations over the sort of policy that would actually reverse this blooming crisis.

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Modeling Solutions

European countries have grappled with this problem longer than we have. In the 1990s the EU observed vancomycin-resistance in hospital patients rising in correlation to AR bacteria found on meat and manure. In response the EU set up a monitoring system and banned medically-important antibiotics, followed by a phase-out of all antibiotics used for growth promotion in 2006. Infection rates went down and the farms didn’t lose production due to the ban.

Denmark was ahead of the EU curb and implemented a ban in the 90s. This is important because Denmark’s hog industry was roughly the equivalent of Iowa’s, which is where the majority of U.S. hogs are produced. Denmark farmers saw a rise in production, and farmers saved money because they no longer bought antibiotics for subtherapeutic use.

In the U.S., Representative Louise Slaughter (Congress’ only microbiologist) and Diane Feinstein have introduced two pieces of legislation: The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) and the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act (PARA). These commonsense pieces of legislation are very similar in that they establish an appropriate relationship between veterinarians and farmers — right now there’s almost no oversight to using antibiotics — and would ban antibiotics that are medically important in human treatments on farms.

Despite growing urgency and countless medical, veterinary and public health organizations backing them, these two pieces of legislation have sat idle in Congress for the better part of a decade.

The Calvary

In response to rising concerns from leading health organizations like the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association, Food & Water Watch has been working with our partners across the U.S. to pass city-wide resolutions supporting PAMTA and PARA. We believe more people need to learn about this important issue and become active in shaping the solutions. In the last year over 50 cities, including Seattle, Chicago, West Hollywood and San Francisco, have passed resolutions calling on Congressional leadership to act in passing these two important bills.

It’s time for Los Angeles to do the same.

Our volunteer-led Healthy Farms to Healthy Families campaign has been speaking to and working with the community in Councilmember O’Farrell’s district for the last few months. Councilmember O’Farrell has been a champion on food issues in Los Angeles and we’d like him to lead on antibiotics. We’ve spoken to business leaders, neighborhood councils and thousands of people on the ground. The response is overwhelming: people want action on this issue.

O’Farrell co-authored a motion for a GMO-free zone, advocated for healthier food policies in LAUSD’s school lunch program (including antibiotic-free meat procurement!), and has given generous support to the multiple farmers markets in his district. Now, Councilmember O’Farrell can continue to lead by introducing a resolution in City Hall. If you’d like to add your voice to those already calling for action, sign our petition.

Also: On Thursday, July 23 at 7pm we will be co-hosting an evening event with LA Green Drinks and our campaign supporter 55 Degree Wine in Atwater Village. We will talk briefly about the issue and what we can do about it, and enjoy an evening of sustainable wines and good community. Please join us!


Walker Foley and Lisa Hart
Food & Water Watch