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A holistic solution for antibiotic resistance: phasing out factory farms in order to protect human health.


Antibiotic resistant bacteria infects two million people each year in the United States, resulting in as many as 23,000 deaths. (1) Approximately eighty percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are administered in livestock feed on factory farms. (2) The livestock develop a resistance to antibiotics, and humans who consume meat containing resistant bacteria can contract antibiotic resistant infections. (3) Although the Food and Drug Administration ("FDA") has recently taken steps to withdraw approval for antibiotics intended for rapid animal growth, sub-therapeutic uses of antibiotics on farms for disease prevention are still prevalent and accepted, despite severe health risks posed for humans. (4)

However, antibiotic use in animal feed has become a crucial and necessary part of factory farming practices to treat animals that become ill or are at risk for disease due to inhumane, crowded, and unsanitary conditions. (5) These conditions compromise animal health and result in repeated antibiotic administration to keep livestock healthy for human consumption. (6) This prevalent antibiotic distribution ultimately harms human health. (7) While federal laws provides some regulation to ensure food safety, these laws take a passive, post hoc approach. (8) The United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA"), for example, merely has authority to inspect meat after slaughter to ensure that the product is safe for humans, but does not provide guidelines for the care of animals during their lifetime on farms. (9) Furthermore, FDA has the power to regulate contents of animal feed and drugs administered to farm animals, however, their current approach is problematic and ignores the reality of factory farming practices. (10)

This note examines current federal agency action, which purports to guarantee healthy, safe meat and dairy products for human consumption. (11) Section I outlines the cycle of antibiotic resistance, originating from the legally permitted confined and inhumane state of farming operations. (12) Section II discusses the FDA's recent failure to remediate the threat of antibiotic resistance and presents the control and influence exerted by the meatpacking and pharmaceutical industries. (13) Section 111 examines the United States' flawed approach and the underlying issues that have stymied progression in laws and regulations at the farm-level that are needed to target the phase out of traditional factory farms in order to eliminate antibiotic resistance transferred from animals to humans. (14) Ultimately, laws mandating humane and sanitary standards on farms are necessary to improve animal welfare in order to diminish antibiotic resistant infections in humans. (15)

I. The Transfer of Antibiotic Resistance from Animals to Humans

A. Evolution from Farms to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations

Traditional farming practices relied on a symbiotic relationship between farmers and animals. (16) This system was based upon the notion that animals' health would have a direct effect on the human's health. (17) Thus, livestock were raised in clean and healthy environments. (18) Small, family-owned and operated farms began to transition into factory farms, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations ("CAFOs"), at the end of World War II when agricultural scientists worried about the supply of food for its citizens. (19) Shifting American values such as efficiency and productivity as well as technological advances sparked the beginnings of modern factory farms. (20) New technologies such as machines, vaccines, and antibiotics destroyed the mutually beneficial relationship between animals and humans. (21) Today, the American "farm" is viewed by some to be analogous to a factory; animals are considered machines and mere units on an assembly line of production. (22)

In 2007, the total number of animals concentrated on CAFOs in the United States grew to over twenty-eight million. (23) Technology, along with pressure from the meatpacking industry, forced smaller farms to expand and produce more meat at lower costs. (24) Capitalized farms are mainly controlled and owned by large meatpacking companies such as Tyson, Smithfield, JBS, and Cargill. (25) According to some, these operations entail extreme animal confinement, crowded conditions, animal neglect and abuse, unnatural and unhealthy feed administered to animals, and unsanitary environments. (26) This maltreatment precipitates the need for sub-therapeutic use, commonly referred to as "preventive" or "preemptive" dosing of antibiotics into animal feed to prevent and remedy the imminent onset of disease as a result of these farming operations. (27)

B. Current CAFO Conditions and Practices

Specifically, three main practices on CAFOs contribute to the need for antibiotics in animal feed and thus lead to antibiotic resistance in humans: unsanitary conditions, extreme confinement, and inhumane treatment. (28) Animals confined in these operations may be in a state of disease and imminent death, necessitating the use of antibiotics in feed. (29) Because the majority of meat comes from CAFOs, health experts question the negative implications antibiotic use has on human health. (30)

i. Animal Confinement

Factory farms strive to produce the greatest amount of meat as possible with as few resources as possible in order to keep costs low. (31) As a result, many animals are kept indoors without access to sunlight, fresh air, or the ability to turn around. (32) Factory farm confinement practices vary by the type of animal raised. (33) Hog farms, for instance, use gestation crates, which are individual, tiny metal pens that enclose pregnant pigs, restricting movement. (34) Battery cages used for egg-laying require hens to sit on top of one another from floor to ceiling, inhibiting the animal's movement. (35) These cages may prevent the hens from reaching food and water and can cause severe injuries. (36) Veal crates designed for baby cows confine animals to small wooden boxes, restricting the calves' movement. (37) Chickens raised for meat are also similarly confined, sometimes in contaminated warehouses where they may be covered in waste. (38) Likewise, on hog farms, thousands of pigs are placed together in giant warehouses, which can result in unsanitary conditions due to amount of urine and feces generated by the animals. (39) Most cattle live on feedlots where thousands are confined into acres of steel pens. (40) These cows can stand without shelter and sleep while covered in their own waste. (41) Consequently, CAFOs have high death rates of these animals. (42) These practices are considered conventional in factory farming. (43)

ii. Disease from Animal Waste

CAFO confinement systems in the United States typically consist of large numbers of farm animals in small spaces, subsequently creating serious and life-threatening diseases for animals due to the exposure of toxins in their waste. (44) The waste generated on hog farms, for example, contains harmful substances such as ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, cyanide, phosphorous, nitrate, heavy metals, antibiotics, and other drugs, which sink through slatted floors and into pits underneath the hog pens. (45) Exhaust fans pump the toxins and fumes out of the warehouses to protect the air quality for the hogs. (46) However, animals may die from inadequate ventilation. (47)

iii. Spread of Disease

Confinement of animals encourages the spread of disease. (48) Animals raised in crowded and unhygienic conditions possess a weakened immune system more susceptible to disease. (49) Sick animals pose a high risk of spreading disease to the factory's remaining contained animal population. (50) These animals may not receive adequate individual veterinary care. (51) Another health consequence of confinement is that animals are restricted from partaking in natural behaviors such as foraging, perching, nesting, rooting, mating, or general movement, which can contribute to animals' physical suffering and ultimately disease and death. (52)

iv. Unnatural Animal Feed

In order to keep costs low, factory farms utilize animal feed that may contribute to illness and disease. (53) CAFOs administer genetically modified corn and soy based feeds because these products are cheaper and promote rapid growth and weight gain in animals. (54) Animals may be fed products containing carcinogens, rocks, dirt, and plastic. (55) Arsenic and poultry litter have also been combined with animal feed. (56) On some factory farms, cannibalistic practices have been incorporated into factory farming operations in order to decrease costs. (57) Factories may grind up animal corpses to mix with animal feed, which produces a meal consisting of feathers, skin, hair, hooves, blood, and intestines. (58)

v. Inhumane Practices

According to some organizations, CAFOs perpetuate animal illness by engaging in inhumane practices. (59) For example, cattle farms are permitted to castrate, dehorn and brand cows without medication or anesthesia. (60) Pigs may face similar experiences; tail docking, or the practice of removing pigs' tails to prevent the pigs from biting others' tails, is permitted under current regulations. (61) Similarly, in poultry operations, chickens' beaks may be removed without anesthesia to inhibit poultry from pecking one another. (62) Studies have determined that these practices negatively impact the animal's mental health and lead to prolonged physical pain and suffering. (63)

C. Laws and Regulations Regarding Animal Welfare on CAFOs

Laws and regulations at the federal level are limited with respect to the treatment and care of farm animals. (64) Some states have reacted to harsh treatment by mandating confinement and humane standards on farms. (65) California, for example, enacted laws which set out minimal confinement standards by outlawing cages which prevent animals from turning around, standing up, or moving limbs. (66) Furthermore, some independent and organic farmers today have voluntarily rejected confinement and other practices commonly used by factory farms. (67) For instance, farmers who abide by specific standards may be certified under the USDA-approved third-party Animal Welfare Approved label, indicating that all animals were raised outdoors on a pasture or range. (68) Similarly, under the USDA certified organic label, farms ensure that its animals have "continuous and year-round" access to outdoors. (69) However, these operations remain the exception with one percent of cattle, pigs, and chickens raised under USDA certified organic regulated conditions. (70) In contrast, animals originating on factory farms account for ninety-nine percent of the meat humans consume. (71)

Currently, the USD A and FDA lack authority to dictate sanitation or confinement standards on factory farms which would alleviate health risks for animals. (72) Both the USDA and FDA are limited to the authority Congress grants each agency. (73) For instance, Congress gave FDA power to protect public health by regulating drugs fed to food-producing animals. (74) Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act ("FMIA"), Congress granted authority to the USDA to control inspection of meat before and after slaughter to ensure safety for human consumption. (75) USDA regulations attempt to ensure food safety by examination of meat, poultry and eggs, but fail to supervise, inspect, or create standards on factory-farming operations in which animals and eggs are raised and produced. (76)

D. Antibiotic Use in CAFOs and Detrimental Effects on Human Health

Current farm practices necessitate the regular administration of antibiotics in livestock in order to keep animals healthy for human consumption. (77) Since the 1940s, when the first antibiotic was distributed to the public to treat infections, antibiotics have been labeled as a miracle drug and saved millions of human lives. (78) Factory farms began to administer antibiotics via animal feed after discovering that antibiotics helped animals grow and gain weight at a faster rate. (79) According to FDA's most recently released report regarding antibiotic distribution, 32 million pounds of antibiotics intended for use on factory-farming operations were sold in 2012, demonstrating an eight percent increase from the prior year. (80)

Antibiotic residue transfers from animals to humans through the environment, human contact with livestock, and predominantly through human consumption of meat and dairy products. (81) Antibiotics, administered via feed, are used to treat illness, prevent disease, and increase growth. (82) Studies have shown that administration of these drugs lead to antibiotic resistance in humans. (83) Farmers administer low-dose antibiotics for non-therapeutic use in order to increase animal weight, a practice recently considered by FDA to be unsafe. (84) This use has been considered controversial, however, FDA only recently issued its opposition to the administration of drugs for animal growth. (85) In contrast, sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics in animal feed are higher doses intended to prevent imminent animal disease and death, and do not require a prescription. (86) Currently, sub-therapeutic administration remains crucial for maintaining farm operations because the drugs prevent the disease or infection that may result from the conditions at the factory farms. (87)

According to the American Medical Association, the threat of resistant infections in humans is rising due in part to the "excessive use of antibiotics in animal agriculture." (88) The overuse of antibiotics in animal feed can detrimentally affect human health, resulting in antibiotic resistance and encourages the spread of antibiotic resistant infections. (89) Antibiotics are present in the food humans consume, particularly in animal products such as meat, cheese, milk and eggs. (90) Food labels, such as USDA certified organic or the "raised without antibiotics" seal, indicate that the livestock did not receive antibiotics at any time during their lives, even for treatment of illness. (91) Organic labels only account for one percent of meat sold and two percent of both egg-laying hens and dairy cows. (92) Thus, millions of people ingest small doses of antibiotics each day through food. (93) This continual ingestion of small amounts of antibiotics contained in dairy and meat over time leads humans to build up immunity to the drugs intended to treat human infections. (94)

Antibiotic resistant bacteria, also known as "superbugs," are bacteria immune to the drug used to treat specific infections. (95) Many drug-resistant bacteria originate on CAFOs; farm animals build up antibiotic resistant bacteria in their intestines, which are then transferred to the meat packaged for human consumption. (96) Superbugs are a direct, unexpected consequence due in part from the overuse of antibiotics in CAFOs. (97) Under the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System ("NARMS"), FDA, USDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ("CDC") collaborate by examining trends in antibiotic resistance bacteria from farm animals and retail meat. (98) In recent years, troubling levels of resistant bacteria in retail meat were discovered based on NARMS results. (99) Once humans consume meat containing the drug-resistant bacteria such as Campylobacter, salmonella, and Escherichia coli ("E. coli"), the antibiotic-resistant strains begin to form in the intestines. (100) Treating these strains proves difficult to impossible to treat, resulting in longer hospital stays and severe health complications. (101) Medically important drugs, such as tetracyclines and penicillin, used by humans to treat these infections are frequently administered in animal feed, despite findings indicating that use on farms contributes to the rise of superbugs. (102) These bacterial infections, ordinarily treatable with antibiotics, have become incurable and even fatal. (103)

II. Federal Agency Approach to Preventing Antibiotic Resistance

Although the transition of traditional farms to CAFOs developed rapidly, the United States' laws and regulations failed to keep pace and have yet to address severe health issues posed by factory farms today. (104)

A. FDA's Role in Protecting Against Antibiotic Resistance

FDA gained regulatory authority with the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, at a time when most food was prepared at home and obtained from local sources. (105) The Pure Food and Drug Act ("PFDA") regulated all foods except meat, poultry, and processed eggs. (106) FDA has authority to regulate antibiotics distributed in animal feed on factory farms, a power derived from the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act ("FD&C Act") (107) and the Public Health Service Act ("PHSA"). (108) Under the FD&C Act, FDA has the power to regulate "introduction or delivery for introduction into interstate commerce of any food, drug, device, tobacco product, or cosmetic that is adulterated or misbranded." (109) FDA has authority to approve the sale and use of and biotics and regulate the manufacture and distribution of animal antibiotics." (110)

Many antibiotics intended for non-therapeutic use in animal feed were approved by FDA starting in the early 1970s. (111) In 1977, the Agency proposed measures to prevent two medically important antibiotics, tetracyclines and penicillin, from being administered to livestock. (112) In 2011, FDA withdrew its proposal. (113) FDA, however, demonstrated its commitment to protect public health by initiating plans to fight antibiotic resistance and superbugs. (114) Since the 1950s, antibiotics such as tetracyclines and penicillin were continually given to livestock in non-therapeutic low doses in order to increase weight. (115) More recently, both drugs require higher dosages, comparable to the dosage of antibiotics given for sub-therapeutic and therapeutic purposes. (116) The Agency's latest guidance for the industry, however, labeled antibiotics intended for growth as injudicious and requested that the pharmaceutical industry stop issuing antibiotics for the purpose of growth enhancement in livestock. (117)
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Title Annotation:Introduction into II. Federal Agency Approach to Preventing Antibiotic Resistance A. FDA's Role in Protecting Against Antibiotic Resistance, p. 145- 170
Author:Belanger, Amanda
Publication:Journal of Health & Biomedical Law
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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