Low-Dose Antibiotic Use in Agriculture Externalizes Health Costs

The routine use of antibiotics in animal feeds leads to the emergence of antibiotic resistant infections in humans, which are expensive and difficult to treat. True Cost Accounting (TCA) is a method of better aligning externalized costs of production with end-product values. Many organizations are seeking to account for the true costs of industrial agriculture, which include externalized healthcare costs associated with antibiotic resistance.

Accounting for these costs not only provides more accurate information on the extent of market failure, but also has substantial implications for public health.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that the United States uses nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics each year for animal production. Of all the antibiotics sold in the U.S. each year, 80 percent are fed at low doses to farm animals that aren’t sick, in order to promote rapid growth. This practice can reduce the costs of production by bringing animals to market much quicker; a typical industrial chicken now reaches market size in about six weeks, as opposed to 70 days in 1955. By cutting costs and scaling up production over several decades, industrial animal producers have been able to provide cheaper meat to domestic and international markets.

However, cheap chicken comes at a steep cost to consumers that become sick from antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excess healthcare costs in the U.S. from antibiotic resistance are estimated at US$20 billion annually. People spent an additional 8 million days in the hospital due to these infections in 2011. Other societal costs, such as lost wages from extra days spent in the hospital and premature deaths, were estimated at US$35 billion in 2011.

These costs are not reflected in market prices for foods produced using low doses of antibiotics, but rather, absorbed by consumers that suffer from infections and taxpayers that support public health programs. Furthermore, research supported by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future has demonstrated that the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in chicken is not cost-effective.

In the U.S., at least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, according to the CDC. 23,000 people die every year as a direct result of those infections, and many more die from complications. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in 2010, almost 52 percent of chicken breasts tested were contaminated with antibiotic resistant E. coli. Because of these exorbitant costs and serious public health risks, there is a national movement to end the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in agricultural production.

Consumer demand is already shifting purchasing toward meat produced without the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics.McDonalds and Tyson have both pledged to phase antibiotics out of their supply chains due to pressure from consumers and advocacy organizations.

 These policy changes follow similar actions taken by Chipotle and Chick-fil-A and aim to provide customers with healthier, more ethical food options. “We are seeing companies come to the table because of public pressure in a way they haven’t before,” says Susan Vaughn Grooters, a policy analyst for Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition of health, animal-welfare and environmental groups. In Grooters’ opinion, the FDA is “being outpaced by the microbes themselves and by the industry.”

However, these actions are voluntary and pledges are non-binding. Through a regulatory approach to sub-therapeutic antibiotic use, the FDA could be much more effective in reining in the externalized costs of antibiotic resistance. The European Union banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in 2006, but 10 years later, the U.S. still allows this harmful practice at the expense of public health.

Representative Louise Slaughter, a long-time advocate of more responsible use of antibiotics in agriculture, reintroduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) in March of 2015. PAMTA would reserve important antibiotics for clinical use, rather than allowing sub-therapeutic doses to be used in animal feeds for industrial production.

“My legislation would save eight critical classes of antibiotics from being routinely fed to healthy animals and would reserve them only for sick humans and sick animals,” Slaughtersays. “Right now, we are allowing the greatest medical advancement of the 20th century to be frittered away, in part because it’s cheaper for factory farms to feed these critical drugs to animals rather than clean up the deplorable conditions on the farm.”

In the 113th Congress, PAMTA had 78 co-sponsors and was endorsed by 450 health, agriculture, environmental, food safety, nutrition, animal protection, religious, labor, and consumer advocate groups. Please support the work of Rep. Slaughter by telling your state representative to support PAMTA and account for the true costs of industrial animal production. Sign the petition HERE!

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