Public health officials are getting a gift today. A White House meeting on the use of antibiotics in animals has earned pledges from more than 150 organizations, companies and food producers curbing the use of animal antibiotics.

Once used to save the life of an animal, it has eclipsed overuse and rendered most ineffective. Its commercial use is leading to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and demands from advocacy groups to clean up our food supply.

How bad is antibiotic resistance? It kills 23,000 Americans per year out of 2 million Americans who fall ill with infections resistant to current antibiotic protocols.

The move by the Obama administration is a continuation of his national strategy laid out last fall. It’s politics, so critics quickly emerged citing the administration wasn’t doing enough to cut agricultural use.

It ignores the fact he’s the first President to tackle the problem of antibiotic resistance. The meeting is designed as another salvo against the growing public health crisis.

Allan Coukell, a senior director at Pew Charitable Trusts, backed the administration’s initiative:

“There’s no single event that turns the tide, but cumulatively I don’t think anyone has ever put this kind of focus on antibiotic resistance before.”

What is Antibiotic Resistance

With the pledges to cut use in animals, let’s understand what we are fighting.

The basics of antibiotic resistance are when a drug loses its ability to kill off bacterial growth. The bacteria become ‘resistant’ to antibiotics. Bacteria cells can continue to reproduce despite antibiotics being introduced at therapeutic levels in the patient either orally, injected or intravenously.

How does antibiotic resistance happen?

Two ways. One is through genetic mutation while the other is acquired. Mutation is rare and occurs in one in one million to one in ten million cells. While some mutations are more benign, others can be aggressive. A mutation can cause the bacteria to produce chemical enzymes that render the antibiotic useless.

antibiotic resistance

The other method is through acquiring it from other bacteria. Bacteria can ‘mate’ with other cells and receive genetic material containing antibiotic resistance genes.

Viruses can also lend a hand. While attacking bacteria, the cells can transfer its resistance traits to bacteria cells.

The issue with the mutations and acquired resistance is bacteria can stack them. Over time, infections become resistant to entire families of antibiotics, leading to the crisis we have today.

Researchers have warned if this is not held in check and reversed, we may enter an age where antibiotics are no longer effective. People may begin to die from infections we think of as ordinary today.

Animal Antibiotic Use

Outside of the pledges emerging from the White House Meeting, the FDA finally acted. Spending years…. maybe sitting on their hands or attending conferences, the regulatory agency issued a final rule on antibiotic use for food animals.

Prescriptions will be required from veterinarians for farmers to administer antibiotics to their livestock (food animals). Vets will be required to follow state guidelines, and the wild west approach of farmers buying antibiotics with little to no oversight is over.

Is it a perfect rule? Nothing ever is, but it’s a step in preventing the wholesale use of antibiotics in our food supply. Stopping this behavior cuts off an avenue causing antibiotic resistance.

Cleaning Our Food Supply

The new value meal among restaurants and fast-food chains is healthy ingredients. Already, McDonald’s and Chick-fil-a have promised to cut antibiotics from their meat. Producers like Foster Farms, Tyson and Perdue, have all independently pledged to take action.

Consumer behavior has pushed the changes faster over government regulations or initiatives.

Personal Responsibility and Antibiotic Use

It’s not just the burger you’re eating that had antibiotics used on it at the farm. We all play a role in this. Hospitals have signed on to monitor and limit the prescriptions they write.

Yes, we all feel like crap sometimes. No, a cold cannot be cured with an antibiotic prescription. Neither can the flu. Both are viruses. Antibiotics work against bacterial infections – say a raging sinus infection.

Are you a patient attending the University of WebMD? If you have the sniffles, calm down. Don’t demand antibiotics. Let your doctor treat your symptoms. Or, just stay home a day and quit getting me sick coughing all over the place.

Now the prescription cough syrup? That stuff works…

The meeting and the FDA ruling are great steps. Developing new antibiotics and cutting personal use is the next step. It’s a good day for public health officials, and a reminder we all play a role in halting antibiotic resistance.

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