Photo: USDA

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The Obama administration just made a move toward curbing one of the most toxic aspects of our food system, with a new Food and Drug Administration regulation on certain antibiotics used in livestock.

Still, massive amounts of medicine will continue to circulate through our food system. The environmental presence of these drugs underscores how deeply interconnected food production, public health, and workplace safety are, and how comprehensively our regulatory system has failed.

The new order restricts the “extra-label” or nonstandard uses of cephalosporins, which, according to the New York Times, “are among the most common antibiotics prescribed to treat pneumonia, strep throat, and skin and urinary tract infections.” Tightening livestock producers’ antibiotic use is a small sign that FDA is finally responding to scientific evidence of antibiotic-related disease risks. But the underlying question is, what is the stuff doing in our food in the first place?

In 2009, some 80 percent of antibiotic drugs sold in the U.S. weren’t used on people but on farm animals, typically pumped into their bodies through injection or medicated feed and water. This has little to do with keeping animals healthy; the drugs are often used just to plump them up before they become dinner.

Last year, following an especially virulent salmonella outbreak in ground turkey, the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition stated that most of these drugs were intended “not to treat animal illness, but to promote slightly faster growth and to compensate for crowded, stressful, and unhygienic conditions at industrial-scale livestock and poultry facilities.”

While consumers may cringe at the thought of squalid feeding pens, it’s important to remembed that those sickening conditions directly affect people laboring in these farms. New research links livestock antibiotics to antibiotic-resistant infections and to livestock workers.

Steven Roach of the advocacy group Food Animal Concerns Trust, told In These Times that while the diseases can spread in many ways through the environment, “There’s a very clear connection between farmworkers and some of the resistant infections.” Due to workplace exposures, he added, “They’re at higher risk for getting resistant infections. And they also are a pathway for introducing resistant bacteria into the community. So a farm worker may just be carrying resistant bacteria if they visit somebody in the hospital, or they have children.”

WIRED has reported on one study connecting the recent wave of MRSA (drug-resistant staph) infections to pork farm workers who handle the drugged hogs. Though some producers did apparently encourage “biosafety” measures like washing up routinely, WIRED reported that surveyed workplaces often lacked protections against contamination of workers (and eventually, their homes). Most did not regularly clean their showers or do workers’ laundry.

Only about 34 percent “had a policy for taking care of wounds.” Less than five percent “had had their barns tested for the presence of resistant bacteria.” Though the findings were not definitive, according to WIRED, “It makes clear that MRSA is occurring among farm workers, probably more than in the general population, and it spotlights some ways in which they are being made more vulnerable to infection from animals or from each other.”

The “superbug” infection pathway intersects with structural health and safety threats on livestock farms. Many workers suffer from exposure to toxic gases and dust that chokes their lungs, along with inadequate access to medical care–not to mention the poverty wages, draconian immigration laws, exploitative employers, and other injustices plaguing the rural workforce. The risks are compounded by workplace oppression, according to a scientific analysis of flu infection in factory farms:

[Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] in some regions are often staffed by black and Hispanic workers who might fear racial harassment for reporting safety infractions to [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], as well as low-income workers of all races who worry about keeping their jobs in the industry and access to health care, housing, and other services provided by their employers.

The FDA’s passivity on antibiotics is just another symptom of a systemic malaise. FDA has long promised to limit the use of two major antibiotics, penicillin and tetracyclines, in livestock feed, and actually moved toward banning the practice back in 1977.

Last year, advocacy groups sued the agency to force it to finally limit the feeding of the antibiotics to healthy farm animals. Last month FDA abruptly withdrew its original proposal to rescind approval of the drugs. Advocates demanding stronger regulatory or legislative action on antibiotics saw the move as a pander to agribusiness, which naturally favors “voluntary” self-regulation.

Avinash Kar, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the FDA rule on cephalosporins (which make up a miniscule portion of all antibiotics used in food animals) a “baby step” that “ignores the larger bulk of the antibiotic resistance problem.” He told ITT that as these new disease risks pass from workers’ hands to the kitchen counter, “It can mean longer treatment time, it can mean some treatments don’t work at all, or it can mean the use of treatments that have a higher incidence of side effects in many cases.”

Fundamentally, the issue of antibiotic resistance isn’t about medicines or animals, but about the relationship between people and what we eat. These new disease risks point to ethical questions on industrial farming, the mass consumption of animals, and the workers at the heart of this enterprise. When basic health standards are ignored, everyone gets hurt.