White House: Factory farms are putting the public at risk — but we're not going to do anything about it

New executive orders aimed at staving off "the next pandemic" both acknowledge and ignore livestock's contribution

Published September 19, 2014 5:09PM (EDT)

   (Image Wizard/Shutterstock)
(Image Wizard/Shutterstock)

Awesome: The Obama administration is finally making serious moves toward addressing antibiotic resistance, calling up an executive task force and presidential advisory committee dedicated to the problem. The executive orders signed Thursday, the AP reports, also call for "new regulations to make sure there is appropriate oversight of the use of antibiotics in hospitals" and "encourage better tracking of antibiotic use and the development of new antibiotics and tests."

Some experts, according to the New York Times, were impressed just that the president decided to take on this issue. But even though we've known about the threat of antibiotic resistance for years, warnings have recently become especially charged. This past April, the World Health Organization released a report characterizing antibiotic-resistant superbugs as a world-wide threat to public health: the bacteria that cause "common, serious diseases" bloodstream infections, diarrhea, pneumonia, urinary tract infections and gonorrhea, it found, are developing resistance to the drugs needed to treat them, including those classified as "last resort." In July, CDC Director Thomas Frieden called for immediate action to address the crisis, which he warned could lead to the "next pandemic." Currently, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are responsible for at least 23,00 deaths in the U.S. each year. So you could also argue that the problem has become pretty much un-ignorable.

Considerably less awesome is the fact that the government will continue to ignore the abuse of antibiotics in livestock, which in the U.S. occurs at astounding rates. To give just one example of how widespread the problem is, a recent Reuters investigation revealed that the use of antibiotics at the nation's largest poultry companies is reserved not for illness, but is instead "a standard practice over most of the birds’ lives.”

What makes this all the more frustrating, as Consumerist notes, is that the report overtly acknowledges the fact that overuse of antibiotics on factory farms contributes to resistance (a fact that the industry sometimes contests). To quote:

Although knowledge in this area is still incomplete, it is clear that at least some drug-resistant pathogens have evolved under selective pressure from antibiotic use in agriculture and may have contributed significantly to resistance in clinical settings. A national strategy to reduce the emergence and incidence of antibiotic resistance must therefore include substantial changes in the use of antibiotics in agricultural settings, in order to preserve antibiotic utility in human medicine. In addition, antibiotic resistance also limits the therapeutic effectiveness in animals themselves; this further supports the need to reduce resistance in animal agriculture.

Emphasis added, because: what's taking so long?!

The federal government has been both acknowledging and ignoring the problem of livestock's contribution to antibiotic resistance since the 1970s. The only progress we've made came last winter, when the FDA proposed guidelines to limit the use of medically important antibiotics for growth-promotion purposes. The guidelines are riddled with loopholes (like, for example, the fact that they're voluntary); critics call them a "gift to the industry." The new executive orders' only contribution, on this front, is that they order the FDA to keep on keeping on.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been campaigning aggressively to reduce antibiotic abuse in livestock, is not impressed. "Just as the administration is taking steps to deal with abuse of antibiotics in humans, it must take steps to curb the overuse of antibiotics in animals, which consume about 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States," Mae Wu, the organization's health attorney, said in a statement. "Shying away from taking these needed steps will not yield the ‘substantial changes’ that PCAST says are necessary.”

By Lindsay Abrams

MORE FROM Lindsay Abrams