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How do you solve a problem like antimicrobial resistance?

By Austin Bryniarski, Yale University Class of 2016, Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic 2014 Summer Intern

This was the question posed and main focus of “Drugs, Animals, and Food: Law & Policy of Antibiotics in the Food System,” the second annual joint conference of the Harvard Food Law Lab and UCLA’s Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy, held on Oct. 23. The conference brought together advocates and scholars from several disciplines to discuss the regulatory issues that exist at the intersection of animal agriculture and human health.

To understand the importance of these questions is to understand the scope and size of the problem. Lance Price, a professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, offered a compelling explanation of how superbugs– microbes that are resistant to traditional antibiotics due to global overuse – develop. Doctors in the U.S. prescribe around 8 million pounds of antibiotics to humans per year when we, say, get strep throat. In the animal agriculture industry, producers administer around 32 million pounds of antibiotics every year; 20 million pounds of which are the same drugs used to treat humans. Such copious use of antibiotics renders them ineffective if microbes become resistant to them. The problem is compounded when those antibiotic resistant microbes make people sick.

Why do producers administer so many pounds of antibiotics, then? For one, antibiotics make animals grow faster, so producers have historically incorporated drugs in animal feed as a way to speed up production. One useful term to explain the reason for such high use is production diseases, which describes the sort of bacterial mess that comes with unsanitary, densely concentrated live animals. Such an industrialized system – one that some might argue is the result of high demand for animal products – might explain the rationale for the overuse of antibiotics. Instead of de-intensifying animal agriculture, or changing production methods in such a way that would be cleaner or more humane, the solution that has become an industry standard is to pile on the antibiotics.

Different examples can prove helpful in understanding how politics, black letter law, consumer demand, and institutions all can play a role in finding a solution. Anna de Klauman, Minister Counselor of Food & Agriculture for the Embassy of Denmark, explained how Denmark’s ban on growth-promoting antibiotics did not dramatically change the bottom line for profits of the huge, export-based pork industry there, and more involved cooperation between veterinarians, farmers, and regulators has resulted from a “Yellow Card” initiative, which focuses on the most severe users of antibiotics in the pork industry. The differences between American and Danish agricultural practices and political norms, however, means that the Danish approach cannot be emulated so neatly.

Speakers also discussed the role of other potential policy measures – a tax on antibiotics, or incentives to change production methods, for example – as effective, but politically fraught ways the agribusinesses producing meat in this country might be regulated. Professor Lisa Heinzerling of Georgetown University Law Center gave a rousing presentation about how court interpretation of the definition of an “adulterant” has had far-reaching consequences in how the FDA can (or cannot) regulate food tainted with superbugs. The role of state laws and agencies in regulating antibiotic use was also discussed, particularly in light of recent antibiotics legislation out of California.

Beyond the law, speakers stressed the other forces to wield when thinking about curbing antibiotic resistance. Private corporations, especially fast food restaurants, have claimed to commit to reducing antibiotic use in their products, though these claims are hard to verify, track, or ensure in the long term. Chipotle’s Program Manager for Food with Integrity Josh Brau discussed the experience of the restaurant committing to only serving “food with integrity,” and how restaurants can have a significant impact on the supply chains they source from, even without legal intervention. Stephanie Tai, Associate Professor of Law at University of Wisconsin Law School, recognized the unprecedented interest in the role of quasi-governmental groups, like the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and how their attention to the issues is a cause for optimism, even if the effectiveness of their findings has yet to be determined.

Clearly, the nation is facing a complex situation. As long as we use antibiotics, we need to think about antibiotic resistance.  The “Drugs, Animals, and Food: Law & Policy of Antibiotics in the Food System” conference provided a great introduction to a complex issue and and at least some hope for how to go about constructing a robust legal framework to help mitigate it.

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