Antibiotics overload?

Dr. Roy Shannon decries the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in big-ag meat production

Contact the doctor:
Dr. Roy C. Shannon may be reached at Oroville Internal Medicine, 2721 Olive Highway #12, in Oroville, 538-3171. Shannon is also a hospitalist at Oroville Hospital.

“In Europe, they have banned the use of antibiotics in agriculture, unless it’s to treat a sick animal,” said Dr. Roy Shannon. “In 2006, the entire European Union banned the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal agriculture due to the threat to human health.”

Use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is “a major concern in terms of promoting antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” Shannon said. “The basic facts are that between 70 and 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are used in animal raising—factory farms, confined-animal-feeding operations, agribusiness.”

Shannon is an internal-medicine physician and hospitalist at Oroville Hospital, as well as chairman of the hospital’s infection-control committee for the past 25 years. He is outspoken when it comes to his desire to ban the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in commercial animal-agriculture enterprises. He would have loved to have seen the failed Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009—H.R. 1549, or PAMTA—pass.

PAMTA, for the uninitiated, sought to amend the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act so that any new application for a “critical antimicrobial animal drug”—a drug intended for use in animal agriculture that contains antibiotics used to prevent disease in humans—would be denied unless it could be proven that there was reasonable certainty that the proposed drug would not jeopardize human health due to the development of antibiotic resistance from nontherapeutic use in animals.

At the time, the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) came out strongly in favor of PAMTA “to eliminate all nonjudicious uses of antibiotics in human medicine and animal agriculture (e.g., cattle, swine and poultry production and aquaculture). … In the animal-agriculture context, the elimination of nonjudicious uses will mean the end of antibiotic use for purposes of growth promotion, feed efficiency and routine disease prevention.”

“Antibiotics are used in factory-farming of cattle, hogs and chickens, and not because animals are sick, but to prevent diseases that are common in these overcrowded and unsanitary conditions” such as that of widely known major beef producer Harris Ranch, on Interstate 5 near Coalinga in the San Joaquin Valley, Shannon said. “They are using the antibiotics to prevent diseases that probably wouldn’t happen if they raised them the way they used to, the way it looks in the advertisements. … The antibiotics may also have a bit of a growth-promoting property.”

As a result of the continuing, commonplace nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in United States’ big-ag meat production, he said, bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Campylobacter, Enterococcus, E. coli and Salmonella have become cause for extreme concern, as the widespread use of antibiotics is causing these and other food-borne bacteria to become antibiotic-resistant.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic resistance is “one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.”

Add to that the findings of the IDSA that “[t]he relationship between antibiotic-resistant infections in humans and antibiotic use in animal agriculture is … well-documented. A large and compelling body of scientific evidence demonstrates that antibiotic use in animal agriculture contributes to the emergence of resistant bacteria and their spread to humans.”

Unlike other drugs, said the IDSA, antibiotics over time “lose their ability to treat the diseases for which they were developed—due to the ability of bacteria to develop resistance to the antibiotic. … [I]nfectious-diseases physicians and professional societies urge that antibiotics be used appropriately and sparingly, and seek ways to limit the unnecessary use of these drugs.”

“The real gist in medicine is that we [as doctors] really do go overboard to use antibiotics responsibly, to not overuse them,” Shannon said. “The more you use them, the more bacteria-resistant they become. And antibiotic resistance is a problem that almost everybody is aware of by now.”

The spread of MRSA in particular is a big problem, he pointed out: “These same bacteria [that are making humans sick] are present in animals. One of the biggest tie-ins is in the pork industry—MRSA is present in a substantial percentage of pigs. And it isn’t hard for these antibiotic-resistant bacteria to get from these hog farms to people—via the workers who go home to their families, the trucks that transport the pigs, workers in packing plants. MRSA can be present on the hides, in the meat.”

Additionally, “MRSA may be in the meat [of any animal] if a packing plant is really sloppy” in their hygienic practices, he said.

Doctors in Butte County are working to use antibiotics responsibly to minimize antibiotic resistance, Shannon said, but only 20 to 30 percent of the antibiotics used in this country are used for the treatment of humans.

“It’s frustrating; it’s a concerning situation,” Shannon said. “The irresponsible use of antibiotics just promotes more and more resistance to the antibiotics that we have, and as we go along, then the problem where people get drug-resistant infections becomes a bigger and bigger problem.