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Another Voice: U.S. should ban non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals

By Alexandra Moore

Many people have likely never heard of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, or PAMTA. It has been in and out of Congress several times but has yet to be passed.

PAMTA would ban the non-therapeutic uses of medically important antibiotics in agriculture. Why is this important?

Each year, more than three-quarters of antibacterial drugs produced in the United States are fed to animals. These antibiotics are generally not used for medicinal purposes, which is especially concerning because this misuse of antibiotics has resulted in the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can affect Americans.

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) administer antibiotics to livestock via animal feed. The antibiotics function to encourage the growth rate of animals and to prevent the spread of infection. Bacteria in the CAFO environment have developed resistance to antibiotics, and there are many ways that these bacteria can cause illness. One pathway is raw or undercooked meat. The manure produced by the animals is also used as a fertilizer in agriculture and the bacteria can spread to common crops, like spinach and lettuce. The excess manure can also leak into nearby groundwater and surface water. Common resistant illnesses include E. coli and salmonella.

The rapid increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria poses a critical threat – the development of a “superbug.” A superbug is a pathogen that has multi-drug resistance and cannot be treated by antibiotics. One such “superbug” is MRSA. The further development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria can mean the development of many more superbugs.

PAMTA would ban only the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics. Sick animals could still be treated, but the use of drugs on healthy animals would be phased out.

It will not be easy to pass PAMTA. There is a lot of opposition, particularly among the pharmaceutical and meat industries. The ban would decrease the growth rate in animals and CAFOs could ultimately lose money, which is not in the interest of the meat industry. The pharmaceutical industry also has a lot at stake because the meat industry is a large purchaser of antibiotics.

Though there will always be opposition to PAMTA, the bill is an important step in curbing the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and protecting our nation’s health. The use of antibiotics in agriculture is banned in Denmark and is heavily restricted in the European Union. This is particularly striking because Denmark is the world’s largest exporter of pork. If other countries can do it, why can’t we? Let’s follow the European example and support the passage of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act.

Alexandra Moore is a Buffalo native and third-year public health major at the University of California, Berkeley.