An Urban's Rural View

No Draft Dodgers in the War Against Antibiotic Resistance

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Among the storms battering the food industry and the livestock producers who supply it, few blow more fiercely than antibiotics. It is, one food industry executive says, "the game changer."

That's why Chick-fil-A's promise (……) to serve only chicken raised without antibiotics is so important. If competitors follow Chick-fil-A's lead, radical and expensive changes in animal raising loom.

Those changes would go well beyond the Food and Drug Administration's proposed voluntary guidelines, which would limit animal antibiotics to the prevention or cure of disease under a veterinarian's prescription. The changes even go beyond Denmark's rules, which only allow animal antibiotics to be used as a cure.

Chick-fil-A says it will tolerate no use at all. "We are," the company's press release says, "asking suppliers to work with the USDA to verify that antibiotics are never administered from the hatchery to the processing plant."

Whether competitors will be willing to make similar promises is a matter of speculation, but no one should underestimate the pressure they'll be under. Complain as they will that Chick-fil-A went too far too fast, food companies know the public-health issue that the chicken chain has taken the lead in addressing is explosive.

Owing to overuse and misuse of antibiotics, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are multiplying. Some experts (…) fear we're entering a "post-antibiotic era" in which bacteria can no longer be killed by drugs. Without effective antibiotics the world would lose modern medicine's ability to combat cancer, transplant organs, do kidney dialysis and treat victims of traumatic accidents. And that's just the beginning of the list.

Already, according to a report last year (…) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23,000 Americans die and 2 million get sick each year because of antibiotic resistance.

So there's a lot at stake, far more than in other food-safety controversies.

For example, a few days before Chick-fil-A's antibiotics announcement Subway said it will stop baking its bread with a dough strengthener that's also used to toughen yoga mats. "Yoga-mat ingredient" sounds yucky but the health risk posed by this ingredient is small -- next to nothing compared to the consequences of antibiotic resistance.

Is it possible azodicarbonamide could become the next "pink slime?" Yes. But it could just as easily disappear from public view. Antibiotic resistance will be on the radar screen forever, which is why Chick-fil-A's move puts far more pressure on competitors.

Livestock producers complain they get more of the blame than they deserve for the resistance problem. There's some truth to that. The CDC report says 50% of the prescriptions for human antibiotics are "not needed or not optimally effective as prescribed."

But animal agriculture isn't blameless. All overuse breeds resistance. And even though the antibiotics used in humans and animals are different, overuse in animals can affect humans through "cross-resistance." An online medical dictionary (…) explains that resistance to a particular antibiotic "often results in resistance to other antibiotics, usually from a similar chemical class, to which the bacteria may not have been exposed."

Food companies know all this. They know that in the coming war against antibiotics resistance, no potential soldier will be able to dodge the draft. As the CDC puts it, "Antibiotics must be used judiciously in humans and animals because both uses contribute to not only the emergence, but also the persistence and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria."

Will there be a rush to jump on the anti-antibiotic bandwagon tomorrow? Probably not. Taking azodicarbonamide out of bread is kid's stuff compared to developing an antibiotic-free supply of chicken for mass consumption. Chick-fil-A thinks it will take five years.

Even intermediate steps companies could take, like banning preventive uses of antibiotics, would take time and cost money.

But be prepared. The pressure on companies to do something about antibiotic resistance will only intensify. The crafty bacteria will make sure of that, even if Chick-fil-A's announcement doesn't.

Urban Lehner

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Dale Paisley
2/18/2014 | 7:22 PM CST
I believe one of the first things we need ot do is stop the overuse of antibacterials in everything we do every day anymore. ALmost every hand soap, dish sopa and laundry detergent spouts the effectiveness of it ingredients to kill up to 99% of bacteria. this means that the remaining 1 plus percent is resistant and as they multiply and mutate, a larger percentage will become resistant. One ither thing that needs to be considered is the fact that a certain amount of bacteria is necessary in nature for decompostion of matter. If we want roots and stalks to decompose to make the stored nutruients to be available for future crops, we need to have the proper balance of these bacteria in the soil. I do agree that there is too much antibiotics in most foods today and that these need to be reduced. I have nvere understood the desire to spend money on meds that are unnecessaryWhy spend tyhe extra money day in and day out if the likelyhood of needing these "meds" is slim. People call it an insurance program but before long there will be no more insurance available either because the government orders use for treatment only or because there will be nothing left that will treat the deseases any more.