New Poll Reveals Overwhelming Majority of Doctors Concerned About Antibiotics Use on Healthy Food Animals

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The overwhelming majority of doctors — a total of 93 percent — are concerned about the common meat industry practice of using antibiotics on healthy animals for growth promotion and disease prevention, according to a new poll released today commissioned by Consumer Reports and released by Consumers Union and U.S. PIRG.

“Doctors need antibiotics to keep working, and they want factory farms to stop using the medicine on healthy animals,” said Sujatha Jahagirdar, Stop Overuse of Antibiotics Program Director of USPIRG. “Nearly every major public health group has come out against this practice, saying reforms are needed if antibiotics are to continue working, and yet the meat industry acts as if it’s too bitter a pill to swallow.”

According to poll results and analysis available in a new report, “Prescription for Change,” 97 percent of doctors are concerned about the growing problem of drug-resistant infections. Nearly a third of doctors polled had had a patient die or suffer significant complications within the last year from a multi-drug resistant infection. The numbers were even higher for doctors who work in both outpatient and hospital settings.

“Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness due to the growing emergence of ‘superbugs,’ bacteria that are resistant to one or more classes of the drugs,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports. “Untargeted and widespread use of antibiotics in meat production is contributing to this problem.”

Other key findings of the Consumer Reports poll include:

    • 85 percent of doctors report that one or more of their patients had had either a presumed or confirmed case of a multi-drug resistant infection in the past 12 months.
    • Of those doctors who had treated a confirmed or suspected case of a multi-drug resistant infection, 35 percent treated a patient that either died or suffered serious consequences as a result of the illness. That number jumps to nearly half for doctors that work in both outpatient and hospital settings. 80 percent of doctors agree that the group, hospital or practice they work for is actively working to minimize the inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics.

“The use of antibiotics in animals for non-therapeutic purposes is contributing to their failure in humans, including the youngest of children who are most prone to complications from bacterial illness,” added Dr. Maria Brown of the Maryland Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics. “Simply put, sick infants and children and the doctors like myself that care for them need effective antibiotic drugs.”

Up to 70 percent of medically important antibiotics (and 80 percent of all antibiotics) are sold on an annual basis for use in food animal production in the United States. These antibiotics are fed mostly to healthy animals like cows, pigs, and poultry to make them grow faster and to prevent disease in often crowded and unsanitary conditions on today’s industrial farms. A recent report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed that antibiotics use in livestock production increased 16 percent between 2009 and 2012.

A growing body of experts in the United States and across the globe is calling for stronger action. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that drug-resistant bacterial infections make 2 million people sick in the United States each year and cause 23,000 deaths. A recent World Health Organization report on the issue estimated resistant infections result in eight million additional days in hospitals, which cost between $21 and $34 billion each year in the United States alone.

This fall, President Obama issued an Executive Order to tackle the problem of antibiotic resistance. The Order did not require a halt to the overuse of antibiotics on animal farms, but the administration announced that a 5-year action plan will be unveiled in February 2015, giving them a fresh opportunity to stop all inappropriate uses of antibiotics on food animals.

A host of consumer, medical and public health organizations, including Consumers Union, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Health Care Without Harm, U.S. PIRG, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Physicians Alliance, and Healthy Food Action have joined in calling upon the Obama Administration, meat retailers, and meat producers to stop the production and sale of meat raised with antibiotics.

As part of this effort, Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, delivered a letter signed by over 2,000 medical professionals to Trader Joe’s headquarters near Los Angeles, CA, asking the grocer to take a stand for public health by only selling meat from animals raised without the routine use of antibiotics. Consumers Union highlighted the letter and the poll results in a full-page ad in today’s Los Angeles Times.

“Nine out of ten doctors say that antibiotics shouldn’t be misused on animals that aren’t sick. The Obama administration needs to hear their voice and stop this practice cold turkey,” added Jahagirdar.

In September 2014, the Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted an online survey of 500 U.S. family practice and internal medicine physicians who regularly prescribe antibiotics using a random sample drawn from a panel of family care and internal medicine doctors managed by M3 Global Research. Most of the doctors surveyed work primarily in an outpatient setting (378), though 22 percent (108) work in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Another 3 percent (14) of doctors work primarily in an inpatient setting.