Your veterinarian hands you a bottle of antibiotics after treating your cat’s abscess. "You’re to finish them all,” he urges. If you don’t, as the implication goes, you may be contributing to antibiotic resistance. And it won’t be your cat's health alone that suffers, but potentially YOURS, too. 

Antibiotic resistance is an emerging threat that has accelerated in recent decades. The rise of the so-called “superbug” (think MRSA) has struck fear in the heart of anyone who would over prescribe, misuse or otherwise abuse antimicrobial drugs.

Physicians, veterinarians, patients and their families have all been put on notice: abuse antibiotics at the public’s peril. 

Still, that hasn’t stopped the animal agriculture industry from feeding hogs and chickens and cattle their daily dose of antibiotics. Aimed at promoting growth and preventing disease, the use of antibiotics in farm animals has been a boon to animal agriculture. Animals grow bigger, faster, healthier, on less feed and for less money. 

If you eat meat, you’ve reaped the benefits, too. You spend less on meats and your food supply is almost certainly less likely to contain excesses of harmful bacteria.  

But at what cost?

That’s what Obama’s asking. And it’s not just our President. This issue has been decades in the making, meandering through public, Senate sub-committee hearings and closed-door FDA sessions, alike. It’s been the uncomfortable boil on the AVMA’s bottom throughout, festering annoyingly for stretches before gaining some relief once the hot seat gets a little softer. 

And now the hot seat's bound to get fired up again if Obama has his way. Especially now that the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming has thrown down the gauntlet with the results of its research:

1. Up to 70 percent of U.S. antibiotics go to animals raised on industrial farms that aren't sick, to offset crowding and poor sanitation. This practice promotes the development of deadly strains of drug-resistant bacteria that can spread to humans.

2. Food-borne bacteria are more dangerous in their antibiotic-resistant forms, because they are harder to treat and may require multiple antibiotic treatments, longer hospital stays and other interventions before finally being eliminated.

3. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria cost the U.S. health care system an estimated $4 to $5 billion per year.

4. Each year 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths are caused by food contaminated by dangerous pathogens and bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli, which are increasingly becoming antibiotic resistant.

...among other choice points you can read about here

But the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) disagrees. My profession’s leading organization explains that there’s little evidence to show that point 1 has anything to do with points 2 through 4. 

In fact, it argues just the opposite on the subject of antibiotic administration to farm animals and antimicrobial resistance as it applies to human health: There is no evidence to link antimicrobial esistance to antibiotic administration in livestock feed. In fact, in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, the opposite trend is in place. Despite bans on antibiotics in livestock feed (for decades in the case of Denmark), antimicrobial resistance in humans continues unabated. 

More specifically, here’s the AVMA’s position with respect to the kind of legislation Obama supports: 

"The AVMA opposes this legislation because it would increase animal disease and death – an unfortunate and unintended consequence – without assurance of improving human health. As defined within the text of the legislation, elimination of "non-therapeutic" uses of antimicrobials would disallow disease prevention and potentially control uses. This type of broad based ban is contrary to the practice of veterinary medicine and is not risk-based. As legislation concerning the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is considered by Congress, it is imperative that decisions be made based upon the science supporting the issue."

So why risk human health AND animal welfare by making decisions based on conventional wisdom rather than science?

To be clear: The kind of legislation Obama claims to support hopes to limit antibiotic use in animals to therapeutic situations only. In the administration’s parlance, that means antibiotics for animals are reserved for disease treatment only. Yet by the time an animal becomes ill enough to require antibiotics, it’s often too late to include them in the food supply. He’s dog food.

It’s true: The animal agriculture industry keeps infections at a manageable level by tamping them down with routine antibiotic use. Fewer animals get sick. If this kind of legislation is enacted, I have no doubt that animals will be less healthy in the short term. And, yes, that has implications for human health, animal welfare AND the price you pay at the supermarket. 

But the Pew people have put their finger on the pulse of the industry and found it artificially strong. They see antibiotic usage not only as a threat to human health, but as an animal welfare issue in and of itself. 

After all, antibiotic use in animal agriculture makes sense primarily because of how we crowd and transport our creatures. Remove the antibiotics and more animals will surely get sick in the short term. But long-term, that only means that the animal agriculture industry will be forced to reform how it houses and ships its widgets.

Sure, it may mean the industry will suffer through a major overhaul. It might even mean the price of your meat will double...or triple. And I’m OK with that. But are you??