Antibiotic-resistant bacteria continues to be a major story of 2016. A new CDC study finds that hospitals are increasingly turning to a host of more powerful, “last resort” antibiotics, indicating that the medical community is encountering resistant bacteria more commonly. On September 21, the UN convened a special session to tackle how to curb the use of antibiotics (read more here).
Is the ag community positioned to deal with this challenge?
The activists are. They have primed themselves to take advantage of the news, and the response from anti-food industry radicals has been expected. This month, the Natural Resources Defense Council and a coalition of Ralph Nader outfits filed a petition (and a press release) claiming that the FDA has failed to adequately deal with antibiotic use in agriculture. Specifically, these activists want the feds to ban all antibiotic use for disease prevention in livestock.
Never mind that the FDA’s guidance hasn’t been fully implemented yet, and never mind that banning preventive medicine for animals is inhumane. The facts don’t matter to these groups. The narrative that “ag is bad” is what counts. And they’re going to keep hammering it.
But there’s a new problem.
As the media reports on the issue of antibiotic resistance, it naturally wants to point to a cause. It’s undeniable that misuse in human medicine is the major contributor to antibiotic resistance. As the Wall Street Journal noted: “Doctors prescribe a more powerful drug ‘just to be safe,’ in case the less potent prescription doesn’t work […] Time-pressed doctors may also reach for an antibiotic to avoid lengthy conversations with patients about why it may not be necessary.” Or at times doctors prescribe an antibiotic for a virus, which won’t work, simply to soothe the concerns of a parent with a sick child. A recent study found that 30 percent of antibiotic prescriptions may be inappropriate.
But the news media also commonly lists antibiotics in livestock in the same sentence with misuse in human medicine. This false equivalence is a big threat.
If human misuse and agricultural use are allowed to be presented to the public as “co-equal” causes of antibiotics resistance, we will have witnessed a public relations disaster. In the public’s minds, people will wonder why the government can’t do something about agriculture first.
Why? Think about perception. Few in the public are close to agriculture or have seen a sick pig or cow. The idea of antibiotic use in agriculture is not something they personally relate to. Many more people can relate to being in a hospital or a doctor’s office or being with a loved one who has an illness. And in that case, they don’t want to limit their own options if they can limit them for agriculture.
The situation won’t course-correct by itself. A twofold investment in education needs to occur.
First, human use of antimicrobials should not be a co-equal cause with agricultural use. There is a more direct link between misuse in human medicine and antibiotic resistance. In fact, a recent survey of doctors found that the vast majority of clinicians believe that excessive antibiotic use in human medicine and patient non-adherence to antibiotic prescriptions drive antibiotic resistance.
Second, the folks propagating the myths need to be exposed. They all have agendas and are not trustworthy sources of information. If they’re given a free pass, their credibility as messengers (to the media and the public) will be too high.
The antibiotics issue is not going away. Close to 23,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and activists are making dire predictions for the future. The question is: Does agriculture want to be in the driver’s seat, or does it want to get steamrolled?
Editor’s Note: Rick Berman is the executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, Washington, D.C. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his own.