There’s a good chance you have taken antibiotics at some point in your life to kick an infection. They’re something we often take for granted, but they are nothing short of a miracle of modern medicine, turning once life-threatening bacteria into something that can be cured with a pill.
But leading health experts are warning that if we don’t act soon, we could turn back the clock to the days when a bout of strep throat could be fatal. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria—aka superbugs—as one of the top five health threats facing the country. Conservatively, at least 2 million Americans are sickened with antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and at least 23,000 die as a result of those infections.
The biggest driver of this problem is the overuse of antibiotics. But it’s not just people getting unnecessary prescriptions: more than 70 percent of medically important antibiotics in the U.S. are actually sold for use on livestock. The vast majority of those drugs—95 percent—are routinely distributed en masse in feed or water, primarily to animals that are not sick to help them survive crowded and stressful conditions on industrial farms. That’s like sprinkling antibiotics on children’s cereal every morning instead of focusing on preventive measures like hand washing and nutrition!
These drugs should only be used on animals when they are sick. And with such a large portion of antibiotics in the U.S. being used in animal agriculture, addressing the problem there is critical to keeping the life-saving drugs working when sick people need them. That’s because antibiotic-resistant bacteria on the farm can spread to our communities through food, the environment, and workers.
The good news is that things are starting to change. While action at the federal level has been weak and riddled with loopholes, consumer demand for responsibly raised meat has been increasing. As a result, both states and the marketplace are increasingly responding and driving progress.
On the policy side, states like California and Maryland are filling in the federal gap, both recently passing legislation to ensure that antibiotics are only used in their states when animals are sick. Meanwhile, consumers are driving companies to clean up their chicken supply chains nationwide: NRDC estimates that nearly half of the U.S. chicken industry is now either under an antibiotics stewardship commitment or is already using responsible practices, according to published statements and data from the WattPoultryUSA 2017 Survey.
The fast food industry has been leading the way in driving this progress—with 12 out of the top 15 fast food chains in the U.S. having now committed to some level of responsible antibiotics use for their chicken supplies. These are household names like KFC, McDonald’s, and Subway. (NRDC and a coalition of groups will be releasing our third annual Chain Reaction report this fall, grading the nation’s top restaurants on their antibiotics use policies and practices.)
Major chicken producers like Perdue, Tyson, and Foster Farms have also made comprehensive commitments to improve their antibiotics policies. These are the giants of the chicken industry—if they can do it, anyone can.
While the fast food industry and producers have emerged as leaders in tackling the problem in the chicken industry, grocery stores have stood out as a major weak spot. Americans shop at supermarkets an average of 1.5 times a week. What they choose to sell, and how they market it, has a major impact on public health—for better or worse. Right now, it’s not for the better. My organization recently graded the top five grocery store chains in the U.S., which represent more than 50 percent of the market share in North America, on their antibiotics policies and practices around chicken. All 5 of those stores got Ds.
Progress has also been much slower within the pork and beef industries. That is the next frontier in addressing this crisis.
In the absence of a federal policy to limit antibiotics use only on sick animals, we must keep pushing the market and states forward. All of us can play a role by supporting companies that adopt more responsible practices and putting pressure on those that are lagging behind. And we can call on our state leaders to pass laws like those in Maryland and California to fill the gap.
A world without antibiotics may be terrifying, but together we have the power to prevent it.
Banner image credit: Wikimedia.
Mae Wu is a senior attorney in the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Mae was featured in our “Stopping Superbugs” partner series with Paul Solman for the PBS NewsHour. Views expressed are her own.