Commentary: How Starbucks, others can help curb a killer

The companies’ suppliers need to end the overuse of antibiotics that has led to drug-resistant bacteria.

By Curtis Morris / For The Herald

A deadly strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is making people sick in Washington state, and our medicines might be unable to stop it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates 35,000 people die in the U.S. every year from infections that antibiotics can no longer treat, and the World Health Organization considers antibiotic resistance among the top ten threats to global public health.

The recent outbreak in Washington illustrates the risk antibiotic resistance poses right now. Several residents in an elderly care facility were infected with CRAB, or carbapenem-resistant Acinetibacter baumannii. CRAB is a bacterial infection that conventional antibiotics can’t easily treat, which makes it dangerous for healthy people, and especially so for at-risk populations such as the elderly.

Drug-resistant infections come about as a result of antibiotic overuse, whether that occurs in human health care facilities or on farms.

We need to stop overusing antibiotics before we have nothing left to treat life-threatening infections.

The CRAB outbreak is just the latest instance of an antibiotic-resistant infection spreading across Washington. In 2015, a strain of salmonella that was resistant to multiple antibiotics infected 184 state residents, including 10-year-old Mikayla Porter. Mikayla nearly lost her life to that infection, which not many years ago could have been easily treated with a quick course of antibiotics. While she survived, many other people who get drug-resistant infections aren’t so lucky, as the new CDC numbers clearly show.

Subsequent investigations tied the outbreak that affected Mikayla to pork produced here in the U.S. That’s significant because nearly two-thirds of the medically important antibiotics sold in this country are used in industrial meat production, which has a narrow focus on producing more, slightly cheaper meat and as a result fails to protect our life-saving medicines from overuse.

The cramped living quarters and unsanitary conditions of industrial farms create an environment that is all too conducive to the growth and spread of infectious bacteria. However, rather than addressing the root causes of disease, meat producers often opt for the easy road: continuously dosing livestock with vast quantities of antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. This routine use of antibiotics on animals turns industrial farms into factories that churn out drug-resistant bacteria.

We need to end the overuse of antibiotics that leads to bacteria developing resistance in the first place, and that’s where food companies like Seattle’s own Starbucks can lend a helping hand. The beef sector is the largest purchaser of antibiotics in the meat industry. If large restaurant chains, which includes some of the biggest beef buyers in the country, require that beef producers raise their cattle without routine antibiotic use, farmers will have no choice but to use the drugs more responsibly or risk losing major customers.

In a recent report that graded the nation’s top fast food and fast casual chains on their antibiotic use policies and practices, Starbucks received an F grade for its lack of a policy regarding antibiotic use in its beef supply. By adopting a time-bound and independently verified policy for antibiotic use in its entire beef supply chain, Starbucks can help protect these drugs, so that they remain effective for future medical use. The company has already taken important steps forward regarding antibiotic usage in its poultry supply. Now, it’s time to act on beef.

We need Starbucks and other companies to protect these drugs today, so that in the future, people don’t have to worry about loved ones, young or old, losing their life to a once-curable infection.

Curtis Morris is a campaign associate with Washington Public Interest Research Group (WashPIRG) and its ‘Hold the Antibiotics’ Campaign.

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