The superbug health crisis breeding at Oregon farms

By Zoe Abbott Boyd of Portland, Oregon. Zoe is a senior in economics and political science at Lewis and Clark College, currently engaged in a summer internship with OSPIRG working on a campaign to limit the use of antibiotics on factory farms in Oregon.

As the effectiveness of essential antibiotic drugs is rapidly declining we are faced with a major crisis in public health. These wonder drugs have saved countless lives all over the world, yet unchecked misuse and overuse of antibiotics is causing an alarming increase in antibiotic-resistant germs. If we don’t act now, the age of lifesaving antibiotics as we know it may soon be over.

A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) alerts, a without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill. Currently, 23,000 Americans die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections, while a further two million are sickened.

Why are these vital drugs failing, and what can we do about it?

A big problem is that eighty percent of the antibiotics in the United States are used on factory farms to feed to healthy animals. Pumping antibiotics into healthy animals not only prevents them from becoming sick in overcrowded, filthy conditions, but antibiotics also cause animals to fatten up faster.

However, the Pew Charitable Trust warns that over the past four decades there have been hundreds of studies showing that feeding antibiotics to livestock breeds resistant superbugs which then infiltrate our air, food, water, and eventually our bodies.

Operating within Oregon, Foster Farms is one of a number of companies that routinely uses antibiotics during livestock operations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the yearlong outbreak of salmonella heidelberg in Foster Farms poultry contained antibiotic resistant strains and sickened at least 416 people.

A letter, signed by more than 30 health, environmental and animal welfare groups, including several in Oregon, asserts that “Antibiotic resistance was a significant feature of the Salmonella outbreak” yet Foster Farms has failed to take steps to prevent future proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria from their products.

New agricultural policy is crucial to slow the spread of antibiotic-resistant germs.

For the past 40 years, the Food and Drug Administration has approved antibiotics for use in livestock feed. If we want to continue benefiting from antibiotic medicine a and stop minor infections and injuries from becoming severe, the FDA must act.

In December 2013, after years of discussion, the FDA implemented voluntary guidelines intended to phase out the use of medically important antimicrobials in food animals for production purposes. While this is a step in the right direction, in order for us to see real change, these guidelines need to be made permanent and enforceable.

The guidelines will be reexamined in three years to decide if enforceable regulation in Oregon is necessary. We now have a clear timeframe to demonstrate the importance of limiting antibiotic use on factory farms. Policy makers must make addressing this major breach in the health and safety of the American public a major priority.

To prevent the World Health Organization’s fear of a post-antibiotic future from becoming a reality, we need to stop the spread of superbugs and that means ending the misuse and overuse of antibiotics.

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