Slime, antibiotics and health

Slime, antibiotics and health

March 28th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Pink slime -- the beef product made from low quality trimmings and treated with ammonia gas to kill bacteria so it can be used as a filler in the nation's ground beef -- has hogged much media attention lately, and understandably so. A court ruling last week about the use of antibiotics in animal feed has not won as much notice, but likely will have a greater impact on American health than all the talk about the pink stuff.

Pink slime has been around for years, though most people were unaware of it. Recent publicity about its widespread use -- especially in beef sold for use in schools -- stirred up concern and outrage. The fallout was swift, though there is no evidence that the unappetizing-sounding byproduct isn't safe.

Most grocery chains quit selling it. Rules about its use in schools and elsewhere are changing. The company that makes it said Monday that it will cut production because of a fall in sales. Pink slime is not as newsworthy now as it was a fortnight ago. Soon, it probably will become just another footnote in U.S. food history.

That's certainly not the case when it comes to the use of antibiotics in animal feed. It's been a worthy topic of conversation since at least 1977 when the Food and Drug Administration reported that overuse of the drugs in livestock, poultry and other animals undermined antibiotics' effectiveness in humans. An order was issued then to end non-medical use of penicillin and tetracycline in the animals unless manufacturers could show the drugs were safe, but it has never been enforced.

Money, not public health concerns, carried the day. Lobbyists for farmers and drugmakers spread enough cash around Congress over the decades to effectively prevent enforcement of the FDA mandate. Last week's federal court ruling should change that equation.

The judge ruled that the FDA must begin to withdraw approval of the two antibiotics for routine use in animals unless makers can prove they are safe. That's unlikely. Many studies over the years link antibiotic use in animals and their feed to the growing number of drug-resistant bacteria in humans.

The judge's order is overdue, but that doesn't mean it will take effect at once. The FDA can appeal and it also has to give drug companies time to file responses at a public hearing. Still, the issue has been raised. Barring another successful infusion of lobbyists' cash, the FDA finally may be compelled to act. Theodore Katz, a judge in the U.S. District Court of Southern New York, made that clear. "If, at the hearing, the drug sponsors fail to show that use of the drugs is safe, the 'FDA' commissioner must issue a withdrawal order," he stated.

That should sit well with the four consumer safety groups that brought the current lawsuit against the agency. "Today [the day of the ruling] we take a long overdue step toward ensuring that we preserve these lifesaving medicines for those who need them most -- people," said Avinash Kar, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

About 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the nation are given to farm animals. That's created a crisis. Tens of thousands of Americans die annually from once treatable but now antibiotic-resistant infections. Enforcement of current rules and passage of tougher legislation on drug use in animals could reduce that toll -- and lead to significant improvement in the nation's health.