Antibiotic resistance prompts new legislation

Dr. Brad Spellberg once treated a patient who had a typical urinary tract infection. She had properly taken her prescribed dose of oral antibiotics, but when the bacteria associated with her infection failed to respond, the infection spread from her urine into her blood, and then to her spine, ultimately paralyzing her. “These are mundane infections that, historically, we could give an antibiotic pill, and the patient would be fine after a couple of days, but not anymore,” Spellberg said.

Such infections are associated with the overuse of antibiotics, which fosters resistant strains of bacteria, said Spellberg, an infectious disease physician and professor of medicine at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine.

“These infections are happening now,” Spellberg said. “They’re going to be increasingly common, and they’re going to be increasingly resistant. The more antibiotics we use, the faster resistance spreads.”

Spellberg joined Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., and local chefs and activists at a press conference last Tuesday in Santa Monica to address this public health issue, and announce Waxman’s proposed legislation to curb the pervasive use of antibiotics in animals.

“The problem is that the widespread use of antibiotics is a serious health threat,” Waxman said. “The overuse of antibiotics leads to the development of pathogens that become resistant to antibiotics, and this is a danger to families.”

The FDA first approved antibiotics “as feed additives for farm animals” in 1951, for the purpose of fostering healthy animals and preventing transmission of bacteria to humans, according to an FDA report.

But there is a growing concern that the use of antibiotics on animals at current levels may be associated with increasing antibiotic resistance.

Waxman said at the press conference that antibiotics are sometimes given to treat sick animals, but that they are largely administered to healthy animals to speed growth or treat potential conditions that could result from overcrowded farms.

According to Waxman, little data is available about the types, purposes and quantities of these antibiotics, but “the lion’s share” of the nation’s antibiotic supply — about 80 percent — is used on animals.

“The question then becomes, is there a link between the antibiotics put into animals and the spread of resistance to humans?” Spellberg said. “There is a very clear consensus among credible scientists that there is a link.”

“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all testified before Congress that there was a definitive link between the routine, non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in food animal production and the crisis of antibiotic resistance in humans,” according to the research organization Pew Health Group.

The FDA released guidelines in April that call upon drug companies and farms to promote “judicious use” of antibiotics to help curb resistant bacteria.

Waxman’s proposed bill, the Delivering Antibiotic Transparency in Animals Act, or DATA Act, would mandate that drug manufacturers and feed mills submit comprehensive data to the FDA on the use of antibiotics in farms, according to a news release from Waxman’s office.

“With this information, scientists will be able to better pinpoint the relationship of routine use of antibiotics in animals, and the development of dangerous resistant bugs, and these bugs can harm human beings,” Waxman said. “This information will inform federal scientists in Congress and start us down the path to sensible regulation.”

Some industry groups and animal advocate organizations such as Animal Health Institute have remained in support of the “responsible use” of antibiotics in animals, claiming “animal antibiotics make our food supply safer and people healthier.”

Jean Halloran, the director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, said at the press conference that Consumer Reports magazine has been opposed to antibiotics in animal feed since 1978.

Consumers Union has launched a “Meat without Drugs” campaign that is currently urging Trader Joe’s to sell only meat and dairy from animals that have been raised without antibiotics.

Chefs Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill and Nancy Silverton of Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza joined Halloran and Spellberg at the press conference in voicing their support of Waxman’s proposed legislation.

Waxman, ranking member of the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee who was first elected in 1974, said that he will introduce the DATA Act in Congress after the Nov. 6 election.

Waxman is up for re-election in the new 33rd Congressional District, which includes Santa Monica.

“The DATA Act will give us the data we need to actually implement countermeasures to prevent the spread of resistance,” Spellberg said. “[It] should be enacted as soon as possible to deal with this critical public health threat.”