It was a busy news week last week for environmental lawyers, with the EPA releasing a proposed rule for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. But another important release last week escaped attention: the Centers for Disease Control released a report on the causes and effects of antibiotic-resistant bacteria infection in the United States. This is a narrower analysis than an earlier World Health Organization report in 2012 that found 63,000 deaths in the United States and 25,000 deaths in EU states plus Iceland and Norway, resulting from antibiotic-resistant infections. The emergence of new bacteria demonstrating resistance to antibiotics is likely due to the overuse and misuse of antibiotics. The CDC study estimated, conservatively, that over two million Americans become infected each year with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, with 23,000 of them dying each year. That is more than the approximately 21,000 people Americans who lost their lives as passenger-vehicle occupants in 2011.
Why do I say that it is American Agriculture that kills people? Isn't it over-prescription of antibiotics that is causing antibiotic resistance? Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler reported in a 2012 New York Times op-ed that 80 percent of 2011 reported antibiotic sales went to agriculture, not human health care. Exactly how antibiotic overuse translates into antibiotic resistance is complicated -- different pathways exist for human and livestock transmission of antibiotic-resistant bugs -- but not that different, and not that complicated.With 80 percent of antibiotic use going to livestock growing, certainly more than half of the antibiotic resistance must be the result of ag use. Actually, a better guess is that more than 80% of the antibiotic resistance comes from ag, because they are applied to livestock in a manner that most contributes to resistance, being administered in low doses. David Kessler's estimate of the percentage of antibiotics destined for animals seems on the mark, with Wired.com reporting the same figure. The CDC report does not estimate the percentage at all, just blandly and lamely stating that "[a]ntibiotics are also commonly used in food animals to prevent, control, and treat disease, and to promote the growth of food-producing animals." Clearly, fear of the bullying ag lobby runs deep.
It is a shame that physicians over-prescribe antibiotics. But at least that is a matter of public health. Antibiotics to promote growth, so that chickens can cost pennies less, at the cost of 23,000 American lives a year, is not a shame, but a national tragedy.