PIRG webinar details how states can address health threat of antibiotic resistance

State legislation to reduce antibiotic use in agriculture key to keeping these drugs effective

Food & farming

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Louis Sokolow
Louis Sokolow

Former Public Health Campaigns, Associate, PIRG

Most people have taken antibiotics at some point in their lives. The drugs are foundational to modern medicine, used to treat everything from bacterial pneumonia to urinary tract infections (UTIs), which cause at least 8 million healthcare visits in the United States annually. Now, health experts are warning that these life-saving medicines we’ve come to rely on so much over the past 80 or so years are becoming less effective, primarily because of their overuse.

A recent study looking at the impact of a California law that restricts the use of medically important antibiotics in meat production offers some good news. The study found a decrease in resistance to one highly-prized class of antibiotics – extended-spectrum cephalosporins – among E. coli isolated from people who had UTIs after the law went into effect. 

Meat producers purchase nearly two-thirds of the medically important antibiotics sold each year in the United States, and many of them use the drugs routinely to prevent disease brought on by industrial farming conditions. That overuse breeds drug-resistant bacteria that can spread from farms and make people sick with dangerous or even deadly infections. 

The California study demonstrates the value of passing legislation to reduce antibiotic use on farms. New state policies will be most effective if they’re properly enforced and include antibiotic-use data collection to track reductions over time, as Maryland’s antibiotics law does.

During PIRG’s recent webinar, “How States Can Protect Life-Saving Antibiotics,” panelists shared their perspectives on antibiotic resistance and how states can preserve some of our most precious drugs.

Dr. Sameer Patel, the antimicrobial stewardship program director at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, works on the front lines of the antibiotic resistance crisis. He reflected on difficult conversations he’s had with the parents of children who are sick with serious infections:

“It’s very frustrating and upsetting and you feel powerless when your child has an infection, you know, from microbes you can’t see,” said Dr. Patel. “Sometimes, you don’t even know how they got them, and you want what’s best for them.”

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can come from just about anywhere. They flourish in any setting in which antibiotics are overused and then spread. These “superbugs” both cause infections and render the antibiotics they’ve survived less effective for treating sick people and animals. Raya Carr, a shepherdess and the events and project coordinator at Mint Creek Farm, told a personal story about needing penicillin to treat a lamb with a broken leg. She was troubled by how much she had to use:

“The amount that I had to use was about double that I wanted to use, and a lot of veterinarians say it’s even at three or four times the dosage because of how resistant the bacteria have gotten to this very valuable antibiotic – penicillin,” Carr explained.

Antibiotic overuse in meat production not only threatens our health but also the well-being of smaller family farms. Matt Wellington, PIRG’s Public Health Campaigns Director, highlighted the need to reduce antibiotic use “to level the playing field in some respects for farmers who do not overuse antibiotics already.” Such action would reward those farmers for prioritizing the health of animals and people by helping them sustain their businesses.

On the human healthcare side, the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (PACCARB) has laid out national targets for reducing antibiotic use. Hospitals that participate in Medicare and Medicaid are federally mandated to collect antibiotic-use data and implement antibiotic stewardship programs. That level of accountability is absent in animal agriculture, and sales of medically important antibiotics to meat producers increased by 8% from 2017 to 2021.

The Transparent and Responsible Antibiotic Use Act, recently introduced in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly, models how states can address the impact of animal agriculture on antibiotic resistance. It directs the Illinois Department of Agriculture to take two steps to protect public health:

First, set a target for reducing antibiotic use in animal agriculture. Madeleine Kleven, Safe and Healthy Food Program Associate at FACT, noted that setting a target would “create accountability” and “foster change in operational practices so, over time, producers can rely less and less on antibiotics.” 

Second, begin collecting existing farm-level antibiotic-use data to improve stewardship in animal agriculture and track progress toward the target.

Wellington summarized what’s at stake in the antibiotic resistance crisis: “We want to make sure these drugs stay effective for when animals and people truly need them.”


Louis Sokolow

Former Public Health Campaigns, Associate, PIRG

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