On Wednesday last week, the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council revealed that pig herds in the United States receive almost as many antibiotics as people in this country do. That’s bad news, especially since most of the pigs receiving antibiotics aren’t sick, but instead are getting the drugs to prevent infections in intensive farming. Those drugs don’t keep the US pig herd healthy—major diseases have increased year over year since 2000—and all those antibiotics are increasing the amount of drug-resistant bacteria that arise on pig farms and that are routinely found on meat.
None of that is good news. But there’s a second story hidden in the NRDC report that is worse: The advocacy organization had to jump over hurdles to get the data to explain the effects of that drug use. Even in the era of Big Data, the information we‘re allowed to have about how antibiotics are used in US animals is limited, incomplete, and hostage to commercial interests—all of which keeps Americans from fully understanding how bad raising practices put our health at risk.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Other nations track and report agricultural antibiotic use, livestock diseases and human health impacts—not only in granular detail, but in unified data sets that make it easy to see how what’s happening on farms affects the wider world.
In the Netherlands, for instance, paired sets of data—Nethmap for human antibiotic use and resistance, MARAN for livestock (it stands for Monitoring of Antimicrobial Resistance and Antibiotic Usage in Animals in the Netherlands) are released in a single document every year by the Ministries of Health, Welfare and Sport, and Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation. (Those are the equivalent, allowing for differences in government structure, of the US Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA.)
The Dutch data sets are assembled with the participation of physicians, pharmacists, and veterinarians, and they are a marvel of completeness. They are remarkably real-time, fine-grained, and coherent across categories—so much that, in the wake of a 2005 European Union ban on one type of farm antibiotic use, the Dutch data could show that drug-resistant infections linked to food didn’t drop as expected. That gave the government the proof it needed to recruit farmers into voluntary cuts in farm drug use. Antibiotic use dropped 60 percent in three years—and that time, they saw a drop in human infections.
Contrast that to the United States, where human prescription statistics are compiled and sold by a private company, Quintiles IMS, formerly IMS Health. (NRDC couldn’t afford to buy this data for its report; the group had to beg help from a deeper-pocketed think tank.) Animal-drug sales, but not usage, are tendered by veterinary-drug manufacturers to the FDA. Documenting where resistance is occurring is even more complicated: That is a joint project of the USDA, FDA, and CDC—but the agencies don’t report all their results in a single document or at the same time.
In the current political moment, perhaps it’s no surprise that the companies that make and sell antibiotics play a much larger role in the US surveillance system than they do in the Netherlands or across the European Union. For a glimpse of how uninformative American antibiotic surveillance is, look at how animal-antibiotic data comes to be.