Antibiotics are the most important medical advancement of the last hundred years. That’s my opinion. This is a fact: every year, our antibiotics become less effective, and there are fewer new drugs developed to replace the ones that resistant bacteria have bested. Over 2 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and those infections kill 23,000 patients.
In December 2013, The Food and Drug Administration issued voluntary rules to phase out the use of antibiotics in animals for any purpose other than treating and preventing infection, referred to as non-therapeutic use. The rules include asking pharmaceutical companies to alter labels so that antibiotics cannot be used to promote animal growth, as well as requiring farmers to obtain veterinarian approval before administering the drugs to animals for any reason.
The purpose of this move is to reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics in farm animals, which decreases the effectiveness of the antibiotics and increases the danger of bacteria becoming resistant to the medications. When antibiotics start to kill bacteria, they leave only the strongest, most resistant organisms, which in turn reproduce to create a population of drug-resistant bacteria. Overuse of antibiotics gives bacteria a better chance at evolving, eventually rendering certain drugs useless against them.
The biggest overuse of antibiotics comes from livestock. 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used for meat and poultry production. Although much of this is for treating and preventing infections in livestock, a significant part of the usage is purely for increasing the size of the animals. For decades, farmers have added small, frequent doses of antibiotics to livestock to promote growth and increase feed conversion ratio, how much feed is needed to achieve a certain weight.
This irresponsible use of drugs has public health consequences. A 2008 Pew Charitable Trust commission argues that industrial food animal production has contributed to the “major threat of antimicrobial resistance.” The report also details the way these superbugs (bacteria with antibiotic resistance) were spreading off the farm and concluded that non-therapeutic antibiotic use in animals should eventually be banned, a sentiment that both academics and legislators have echoed.
Such a ban would likely increase the price of food; farms would need to use more feed to achieve the same weight in animals or would have to cover the same profit margins with smaller animals. However, a National Academies Press study from 1999 estimates it would cost an average of only $5 to $10 extra per person per year. Even if there were steadfast opposition to any price increase, when compared to the potential savings found in a 2009 Tufts University study, the argument would end quickly. They estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections already cost between $16.6 and $26 billion in medical bills every year, averaging about $60 per individual. Remember, that range doesn’t include societal costs that come from sources like lost productivity in the workforce.
By reducing the use of antibiotics, we can start to alleviate the costs incurred by antibiotic-resistant infections. On the whole, food prices may rise, but compared to the disastrous possibility of living in what CDC Director Thomas Friedan calls a “post-antibiotic era,” the smart money says that the new FDA rules are sound economic policy.
Bon Appétit Management Company, the onsite restaurant company that buys, prepares and sells most of the food on WashU’s Danforth Campus, have gone beyond the standards set by the FDA for all of their chicken, turkey, and ground beef over the last ten years. In fact, Fedele and Michael Bauccio, the brothers who founded Bon Appétit in 1987, have worked in Washington D.C. to create this sort of policy change.
Though most of the country will see the FDA rules increase food prices, Bon Appétit representatives confirmed that WashU should be exempt from this bump. Since the company has already made the necessary changes, there will not be a significant, if any, price increase to campus food. The company has outpaced its industry by asking themselves a question posed by BA Director of Marketing and Communications April Powell.
“Am I going to jeopardize the health of people? Or am I going to do what’s right and support health and well-being?” Powell said. “And that’s what the company was founded on.”
WashU is a leader when it comes to the changes presented by the FDA, with the rest of the country left to catch up.
Even though our campus may not see the impact, food prices across the country will soon rise. However, the benefits from phasing out non-therapeutic antibiotics are incredible. These rules will help control the effectiveness of our antibiotics and reduce the public health risk posed by superbugs, and that potential makes it easy to look past the immediate strain to preserve our future.