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Use of antibiotics on healthy animals must stop

Superbugs present a public health crisis, as evidenced by the recent salmonella outbreak

Published: October 2013
Foster Farms raw chicken processed at a plant involved in the salmonella outbreak

Despite their microscopic size, superbugs have huge potential to make you sick. And, the number of foodborne illness linked to these antibiotic-resistant bacteria has climbed in recent months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The current salmonella outbreak associated with Foster Farms raw chicken from processing plants in California exemplifies this food-safety issue. Despite nearly 300 illnesses reported in 18 states and a continuing outbreak, Foster Farms has not issued a recall. On Oct. 9, Consumer Reports announced that it found a strain of Salmonella Heidelberg in a Foster Farms chicken sample that matched one of the strains associated with the outbreak. A day later, Consumer Reports published a report saying that the salmonella scare is not limited to Foster Farms chicken.

Consumer Reports has urged Foster Farms to make a voluntary recall of raw chicken from the three plants in question. The U.S. Department of Agriculture did send Foster Farms a letter on Oct. 8 ordering the company to clean up the plants, but the USDA does not have authority to mandate a recall. We would like to see that change, so the USDA can act more quickly to protect consumers.

The current outbreak is part of a larger, alarming trend of major food-related illness. The declining effectiveness of antibiotics has become a national health crisis.

Consumer Reports’ 2012 Meat on Drugs study (PDF) detailed how about 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used by the meat and poultry industry, mostly to make animals grow faster and/or to prevent disease in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Such heavy usage is among the causes of the surge in superbugs that can’t be treated.

That’s why Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes lawmakers need to take action to improve the safety of our food supply and stem the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Consumers Union has endorsed the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Actintroduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). The bill would ban the routine overuse of eight critical classes of antibiotics on healthy food animals.

We also support the Delivering Antimicrobial Transparency in Animals Act, introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), which would require better reporting by industry regarding which antibiotics are being given to animals and for what purpose. Last month, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) announced the Safe Meat and Poultry Act to create mandatory pathogen-reduction performance standards, expand the authority of the USDA to regulate new pathogens and better notify consumers about recalls of contaminated products.

Consumers Union believes that to preserve antibiotics for treatment of disease in sick people, use in healthy animals must stop. Last year, the nonprofit organization began the Meat Without Drugs campaign, which is calling on the Trader Joe’s grocery store chain to sell only meat raised from healthy animals that were raised without antibiotics.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the public-policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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