Editorial Board

Pill-Popping Pigs Put Humans at Risk

Obama is right to devote federal dollars to understanding antibiotic overuse on farms.

Menace to society.

Photographer: Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg

If humans take too many antibiotics -- and they do -- then the animals they eat take even more. Learning more about how and why farmers use so many drugs is crucial to arresting the speed at which bacteria are developing immunity to them.

This immunity is a major global threat to public health. Antibiotic-resistant infections kill 23,000 people each year in the U.S. alone and cost $55 billion in medical treatment and lost work days. So President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget contains money to pay for better data on the scope of antibiotic use in farm animals. Congress, which has dropped such funding in the past, needs to see that this time it gets through.

The use of antibiotics in agriculture is on the rise: Since 2009, when the Food and Drug Administration began measuring antibiotics given to food animals, use has risen 22 percent. The drugs are typically delivered in feed and water to prevent disease in cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys and to help them grow. As bacteria that infect farm animals become immune to the drugs, they threaten to jump off the farm and into the human population.

Unfortunately, that increase, derived from the drug makers’ sales figures, is essentially all that’s known about the scope of antibiotic use in food animals. Farms supply no usage statistics, so it’s impossible to know how much of each drug is given to each type of animal, and at what ages; whether the drugs have been prescribed for an actual illness, as a prophylactic against common diseases, or simply to increase growth; and how exactly they’re administered.

Obama’s budget proposes to increase USDA spending to $61 million to help collect the missing data. The bad news is that in last year’s budget proposal, the president allocated $77 million for such research, but when the final omnibus budget deal materialized at the end of 2015, that money was nowhere to be found. Public health experts fear the disappearing act will be repeated once Congress, a strong ally of farm and pharmaceutical interests, makes final appropriations.

This would be doubly unfortunate, as a better data-collection regime could build on improved Food and Drug Administration regulations that, by the end of this year, will end the agricultural use of antibiotics for growth enhancement alone, require stronger oversight of diseased animals by veterinarians, and improve record-keeping.

Some of biggest producers and retailers in the U.S., including Perdue and Wal-Mart, have demonstrated a real desire to reduce their dependence on antibiotics. They could work with government scientists in a public-private effort to help growers change their animals’ diets and living conditions so as to raise healthy and robust livestock with fewer drugs. A similar compromise had great success in Denmark, a major pork exporter. To create a better system, however, we first need far more detailed information about how antibiotics are being used on the farm.