Warnings about the dire risks of antibiotic resistance date back to 1945, when the scientist credited with discovering penicillin said that he feared an unknown day in the future “when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops.”
As it turns out, antibiotics in the United States and other industrialized nations still require a doctor’s prescription, preventing “the ignorant man” as scientist Alexander Fleming described him, from picking up penicillin at the store and giving himself an incorrect dose. But for farm animals, that’s been a different story
At animal feed stores, meat and poultry producers for decades have been able to purchase antibiotics in bulk that humans could only access for themselves with a doctor’s visit and a prescription. That scenario led some humans to apparently medicate themselves by shopping at PetSmart rather than seeing a doctor. But more importantly, it allowed farmers to medicate their herds cheaply and efficiently.
On massive farms, animals that spent much of their lives in close-confinement and unsanitary conditions were given a cocktail of antibiotics on a routine basis to prevent diseases. Being fed antibiotics routinely also proved to make animals grow fatter more quickly.
These two factors have made mass antibiotic usage an enormously popular practice on the corporate mega-farms that have come to characterize the American meat industry.
After decades of new and more frightening warnings from the public health community about the risks of antibiotic overuse -- namely, that wonder drugs like Penicillin could lose their effectiveness in the face of rare bacteria that have evolved to resist modern medicine -- the United States government finally decided to act.
Under the Obama administration, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took what a former commissioner said was “the first significant step in dealing with this important public health concern in 20 years.”
Rules that were introduced in 2013 and implemented in January 2017 required all farmers to obtain something like a prescription before dosing their herds with medically important antibiotic drugs, or antibiotics that are also used to treat illnesses in humans.
Under the Obama administration’s 2017 rules, a Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) signed by a licensed veterinarian must be presented at any feed store before a farmer can buy antibiotics for his livestock, ending the days of over-the-counter antibiotic sales at pet stores.
Food safety groups at the time raised concerns that getting a VFD could turn out to be just as easy for major meat producers as buying antibiotics over-the-counter, but those concerns were waived away.
“It’s a big shift from the current situation, in which animal producers can go to a local feed store and buy these medicines over the counter and there is no oversight at all,” the FDA’s then-commissioner Michael Taylor claimed at the time.
Pork industry rejects findings
Over a year later, however, a new report published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) suggests that getting a VFD isn’t so difficult after all.
Analyzing sales data of antibiotics to pork producers, the group determined that medically important antibiotics continue to be sold in roughly the same amount to pigs as they are to humans.
Strictly comparing antibiotic sales in different livestock, the pork industry constitutes a significant chunk of sales (37 percent), the report says. When livestock sales and human sales are factored together, the NRDC found that 27 percent of all medically important antibiotics sold in the United States go straight to pigs.
“The irresponsible use of antibiotics on pig farms has created ripe conditions for drug-resistant bacteria -- as well as the genes that foster resistance -- to multiply and spread from farms to people,” the report says.
The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), the lobbying arm of the pork industry, argues that the NRDC’s report is misleading because it is analyzing antibiotic sales rather than actual antibiotic usage.
“While the 37 percent figure may be correct, sales aren’t ‘uses;’” an NPPC spokesman tells ConsumerAffairs via email.
But even if that is true, advocacy groups say they sales remain one of the only few reliable options to track antibiotic usage in the meat industry. The NRDC report says that government data on the issue is scare, and “the lack of clear data unnecessarily hampers public and government efforts to reduce antibiotic overuse.”
The pork industry also argues that pig and cow producers are unfairly judged because their animals live longer and are larger than other livestock, which they say make them more likely to get sick and require antibiotics
“The US pork industry never has said it has no part to play in the efforts to combat the very real problem of antibiotic resistance, but food-animal producers seem to be the only segment being asked (mandated?) to address the problem,” the NPPC spokesman complains.
While the pork industry seems to claim that it is being unfairly targeted in the antibiotic resistance crisis and burdened by regulations, research suggests that the opposite is true. The industry actually faces very few mandates or barriers in obtaining antibiotics, according to Dr. David Wallinga, a public health researcher at the NRDC who authored the antibiotics report.
Part of the problem, Wallinga says, is that those feed directives that were supposed to function as something like prescriptions for the meat industry are poorly regulated and ripe with loopholes.
For example, he says it’s unclear under the Obama-era legislation whether the veterinarians who write the directives are required to write a new prescription every time, or whether the same prescription can be reused repeatedly for an unknown duration of time on an unknown number of animals.
He also points out that a veterinarian who is employed by a meat producer is likely going to do whatever that company wants, regardless of whether it is in the public’s interest.
"What constitutes veterinary oversight is a huge grey area,” Wallinga tells ConsumerAffairs. Ultimately, his report suggests that reform lies at the feet of major pork producers rather than government regulations.
“Overuse of antibiotics occurs within a markedly changed U.S. pork industry dominated by larger, more specialized farms….these entities have the power to catalyze much-needed change in how antibiotics are used throughout the pork production chain,” the report concludes.
The growing superbug epidemic
A prime example of one such entity with the power to “catalyze much-needed change” would be Smithfield foods. The Virginia-based company, which is technically a subsidiary of a massive pork corporation that is based in China, remains the largest pork company in the United States.
“Smithfield Foods employs staff veterinarians and utilizes contract veterinarians who prescribe any necessary medications,” a public relations agency that represents Smithfield Foods sent ConsumerAffairs in a prepared statement. The agency spokesman directed other specific questions to the “Antibiotics Policy” page on Smithfield’s website, which claims that the company uses antibiotics safely and judiciously.
But researchers continue to uncover growing evidence of superbugs at farms and on food. Several years ago, Ohio researchers discovered what they said was an “extremely rare” superbug on a pig farm, and they said they had no idea how it could have arrived there.
While the researchers stressed at the time that there was no evidence the superbug actually reached the food chain, public health researchers also continue to uncover evidence that other superbugs are already appearing on raw meat sold in grocery stores.
On Thursday, the Environmental Working Group said that their own analysis of federal government data uncovered that 71 percent of pork chops sold in American grocery stores are contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The group said that was also true for 62 percent of beef samples, 79 percent of turkey samples, and 36 percent of chicken samples.
Wallinga, the NRDC researcher, says that antibiotic usage on chicken farms has dropped in recent years because major producers like Perdue voluntarily decided to scale down its usage.
"But the consumers have also stepped up and demanded chicken raised with fewer antibiotics,” he adds, leading industry giants to reconsider their ways. "By contrast we haven't seen that kind of leadership by either companies producing pork, or, with a few exceptions, by restaurants serving pork. "
The World Health Organization has identified antibiotic-resistance as a growing public health threat, and researchers in Europe predict that if no action is taken to address this, superbugs will kill 10 million people worldwide each year by 2050.