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October 2010

Life-Saving Drugs or Plumper Chickens?

A Decade of Arming the Fight to Keep Antibiotics Working

Antibiotics don’t show up on menus or food labels, but for more than two decades they have laced the food on dinner tables across the nation. Eating chickens, pigs, and cows that have been raised on feed filled with antibiotics is correlated with the development of human resistance to the drugs.

Chickens living in unhealthy conditions on factory farms.

After nearly a decade of advocacy by Keep Antibiotics Working: the Campaign to End Antibiotic Overuse (KAW), livestock are fed far fewer antibiotics. There is still much work to be done. When the Campaign coalesced in 2001, The Trust was there to propel its early work. Eight years and $360,000 in grants later, KAW is still the leader on this issue, and its media, advocacy, and education campaigns continue to pay off.

(All Trust grants in bold italics.)

1988 | Antibiotics for breakfast, lunch & dinner

As factory farms replace family farms, adding millions of pounds of antibiotics to livestock feed becomes common practice. Because of crowded and unsanitary conditions, antibiotics begin to be used to prevent, as well as treat, disease. In addition, the drugs make the animals gain lucrative weight.

2001 | Growing concern

Groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Environmental Defense, and Natural Resources Defense Council start Keep Antibiotics Working: The Campaign to End Antibiotic Overuse.

2002 | Getting the ball rolling $10,000

The Trust makes its first grant to the Campaign to bring together doctors, public health experts, and veterinarians in New York and Chicago to take action.

2002 | A winning media campaign $75,000

KAW begins to bring the issue to the fore through a media campaign that results in hundreds of TV, radio, and print stories on the agricultural overuse of antibiotics. This exposure leads to six of the top ten poultry producers committing to reduce the amount of antibiotics used in their operations.

2003 | Protecting the effectiveness of life-saving drugs $75,000

  • The Campaign gets 340 environmental and health groups to sign a statement calling for the elimination of antibiotics in animal feed. It works with the FDA to develop a poultry industry ban on the use of Fluoro­quinolones, the class of antibiotics that includes Cipro, an antibiotic used to treat anthrax. The ban goes into effect in 2005.
  • KAW also convinces national food-service chain Bon Appétit to buy antibiotic-free meat and helps San Francisco become the first city to adopt an antibiotic-free purchasing policy.

2004 | Resistant bugs, ineffectual drugs $75,000

  • Compass, the second largest U.S. food-service company, begins prohibiting its pork and chicken suppliers from using antibiotics to promote growth—the first such policy on pork production.
  • KAW member Environmental Defense issues the widely read report, Resistant Bugs and Antibiotic Drugs: Local Estimates of Antibiotics in Agricultural Feed and Animal Waste.

2005 | Big names pledge to drop some uses of antibiotics

  • The European Union bans non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals.
  • Chicken growers Tyson and Perdue agree to phase out the routine use of antibiotics for prevention of disease.
  • McDonald’s approves a policy of buying chicken only from growers that do not use antibiotics for growth.

2008 | Getting safety laws passed

The Campaign wins inclusion of a requirement in the Animal Drug User Fee Act that drug companies publicize annual sales to animal producers. This law went into effect in March, 2010.

2008 - 2009 | Fighting for federal legislation

KAW helps get the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) introduced in Congress in the spring of 2009. It would ban the use of antibiotics to promote growth or prevent disease.

2009 | The FDA comes around

After years of lobbying by KAW, the Food and Drug Administration testifies before Congress against the routine use of antibiotics in livestock.

2010 | …And so does the USDA

After years of no comment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a representative finally admits that the use of antibiotics in farm-animal feed is contributing to the growing problem of deadly antibiotic resistance in America.

Moving forward

  • Keep Antibiotics Working will continue to pressure the FDA to use its authority to withdraw antibiotic approvals for food animal uses that threaten human health by increasing antibiotic resistance.
  • KAW will continue to build support in several states for the passage of PAMTA.

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