The numbers released quietly by the federal government this year were alarming.
A ferocious germ resistant to many types of antibiotics had increased tenfold on chicken breasts, the most commonly eaten meat on the nation's dinner tables.
But instead of a learning from a broad national inquiry into a troubling trend, scientists said they were stymied by a lack of the most basic element of research: solid data.
Eighty percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States goes to chicken, pigs, cows and other animals that people eat, yet producers of meat and poultry are not required to report how they use the drugs — which ones, on what types of animal, and in what quantities.
This dearth of information makes it difficult to document the precise relationship between routine antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic-resistant infections in people, scientists say.
Advocates contend that there is already overwhelming epidemiological evidence linking the two, something that even the Food and Drug Administration has acknowledged, and that further study, while useful for science, is not essential for decision making.
“At some point the available science can be used in making policy decisions,” said Gail Hansen, an epidemiologist who works for Pew Charitable Trusts, which advocates against overuse of antibiotics.
But scientists say the blank spots in data collection are a serious handicap in taking on powerful producers of poultry and meat who claim the link does not exist.
“It's like facing off against a major public health crisis with one hand tied behind our backs,” said Keeve Nachman, an environmental health scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which does research on food systems.
Antibiotics are considered the crown jewels of modern medicine. They have transformed health by stopping infections since they went into broad use after World War II. But many scientists say their effectiveness is being eroded by indiscriminate use, both to treat infections in people and to encourage growth in chickens, turkeys, cows and pigs.
Whatever the cause, resistant bacteria pose significant public health risks. Routine infections once treated with penicillin pills now require hospitalizations and intravenous drip antibiotics, said Cecilia Di Pentima, director of clinical services at the Infectious Diseases Division at Vanderbilt University's Department of Pediatrics. Infections from such strains of bacteria are believed to cause thousands of deaths a year.
“The single biggest problem we face in infectious disease today is the rapid growth of resistance to antibiotics,” said Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. “Human use contributes to that, but use in animals clearly has a part too.”
The FDA has tried in fits and starts to regulate the use of antibiotics in animals sold for food...
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.
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