The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report this week saying that the Department of Agriculture has "sidelined science" and "betrayed farmers.” The group is particularly concerned about antibiotics.
Farmers across the U.S., including in this region, routinely use antibiotics on their animals. But the World Health Organization recently came out with some new guidelines for them: Try not to use antibiotics just to make animals grow faster or to keep healthy animals healthy. Only use them to treat sick animals.
“And that is exactly what we should be doing,” says Karen Stillerman, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists and the author of the group’s report. Overusing antibiotics can lead can lead to bacteria that are resistant to drugs, the same drugs that doctors prescribe to treat sick people. In the Rocky Mountain West alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention invested more than $7.5 million in 201 7 to track and reduce drug-resistant infections.
Some farmers choose not to use antibiotics, but Stillerman says most of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are sold to the farming industry. Researchers have found that from 2009 to 2015, there was a 26 percent increase in the amount of antibiotics sold to agriculture – antibiotics important for human use.
The U.S. is on board with part of the WHO guidelines. According to current Food and Drug Administration policy, medications that are important for treating humans should not be used to make animals grow faster. But the agency doesn’t have authority over the ag industry. It does oversee the pharmaceutical industry, and has asked drug companies to change their drug labels in a way that would make it a violation to use the medications for animal growth. But it’s a voluntary request. The USDA agrees that antibiotics for growth is bad, but as NPR has reported, neither agency is checking in on farms to see if their policies have made any difference on the ground.
And then there’s the second part of the WHO guidelines -- where the WHO not only “strongly recommends” a ban on the use antibiotics for growth promotion, but also for “disease prevention without diagnosis.” There are no U.S. guidelines against using medications in healthy animals just to prevent them from getting sick.
In November, the USDA said the WHO’s suggestion is based on bad science.
“The WHO guidelines are not in alignment with U.S. policy and are not supported by sound science,” said Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young, acting chief scientist with the USDA.
Stillerman bristles at that statement.
“The science is really strong,” she says. “Routine use of antibiotics is driving antibiotic resistance in this country.” And, she says, treating animals that aren’t actually sick contributes to that problem.
To be clear, the WHO itself says that the evidence for not using antibiotics to prevent disease in healthy animals is “low quality.” But as Stillerman and others note, that’s not because the science itself is bad, but because some scientific questions are so big that it can be hard to design experiments that yield crystal clear conclusions about cause and effect. It’s also because the WHO defines a certain type of study – observational studies – as “low-quality” evidence because they’re less precise than other kinds of studies, like randomized controlled trials. But in this case, randomized controlled trials are nearly impossible to do; scientists can't isolate a farm and a town in a controlled lab setting.
According to the WHO, the potential benefits to human health “strongly outweigh any potentially harmful or undesirable outcomes.”
Researchers know that using antibiotics on farms and feedlots can lead to drug-resistant bacteria and that those bacteria can make their way into people in a number of ways. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clearly illustrate the pathway by which antibiotics on the farm can lead people to pick up untreatable infections through their food. Scientists in Canada found that when producers stopped treating their chickens with an antibiotic against a certain bacterium, fewer people became infected with drug-resistant strains of that same bacterium.
"There are copious data showing this a big problem and that overuse in agriculture is a big part of the problem," says Stillerman. "And so, for the USDA to put out a press release questioning that science -- they’re either misunderstanding it or intentionally mischaracterizing it."
She writes in a report out this week called “Betrayal by the USDA” that the agency is betraying science and the public in favor of policies that benefit big business.
The USDA did not respond to a request for comment.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.