Each year, industrial-scale farms across America feed farm animals millions of pounds of antibiotics to reduce the risks of infections that animals contract in squalid, cramped conditions. Meanwhile, citrus farms in Florida, California, Texas, and elsewhere are taking advantage of Trump-era rules that permit expanded use of antibiotics on crops. One result of all these antibiotics on American farms is the mutation, growth, and spread of drug-resistant bacteria — “superbugs”— which end up on Americans’ kitchen tables, seep into waterways, and are transmitted to unsuspecting farmworkers.
Not only are these superbugs threatening the health of millions of Americans, they’re seeding the conditions for the next pandemic. Although viruses have caused pandemic diseases such as COVID-19, Ebola, and the 1918 Spanish flu, scientists say the next pandemic may well be bacterial because of burgeoning antibiotic resistance. Already, the United States sees more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections yearly, leading to 35,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The misuse of antibiotics on farms has been linked to harmful antibiotic-resistant bacteria like the MRSA superbug and certain E. coli bacteria. In 2018, the CDC warned of a multistate outbreak of drug-resistant salmonella Heidelberg infections traced to dairy calves.
The Trump administration’s failure to pay even modest attention to pandemic preparation was an error on a cataclysmic scale — one of glib and fatal myopia. But antibiotic resistance is a crisis that has been gestating for decades.
Many people are familiar with the problem of overzealous antibiotic prescription by doctors. But agriculture accounts for approximately 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in America. And when they’re overused, these antibiotics lose their power by hastening an evolutionary arms race: Killing off weaker bacteria leaves stronger, drug-resistant bacteria to grow and fester.
The federal government has failed to halt the overuse of antibiotics on farms. Obama-era Food and Drug Administration rules prohibited the use of antibiotic-laced animal feed for promoting growth and required more veterinary supervision of antibiotics used to treat disease. That propelled a more than 20 percent drop in sales of antibiotics for farm animals in 2017. But the FDA has so far failed to outright ban the routine use of antibiotics on healthy animals for disease prevention, as the World Health Organization advises and as a handful of countries including Denmark and the Netherlands have done. Moreover, in 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency sanctioned an expansion of the use of the antibiotics streptomycin and oxytetracycline on citrus crops, prompting vocal opposition from farmworker and environmental groups. In 2019, the Trump administration issued a rule that diminished the number of Department of Agriculture line inspectors conducting oversight at the nation’s pork plants. The result is that mammoth quantities of antibiotics still course through the farming sector.
States, companies, and consumers have a role to play in abating the spread of superbugs in the food system. Maryland and California, for example, have passed laws to curb antibiotic overuse on farms. Some food companies now decline to source meat from suppliers that routinely use antibiotics in meat production. Customers can and do vote with their feet. But piecemeal action can do no more than sandbag the levee. With President Biden now in office, the national government needs to step up.
To save lives, the Biden administration needs to impose a total ban on the routine use of antibiotics in healthy animals, impose stringent limits on the use of antibiotics in livestock feed, and set targets that would dramatically cut the total use of antibiotics on farms. The Environmental Protection Agency needs to ban the use of streptomycin and oxytetracycline on crops, as the European Union and Brazil have done, at the same time as it helps growers use safer practices to prevent disease.
Such actions would also be good for farmers. Recent history in Denmark and the Netherlands suggests that the farming sector can thrive in the face of robust rules curtailing antibiotic misuse in agriculture. The result would be a safer and more sustainable food system that serves the long-term health of the nation.
Mekela Panditharatne is a lawyer with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization.