This year, a shocking 80 percent of all the antibiotics used in the U.S. will be fed to turkeys, chickens, cows, pigs and other food animals. Antibiotics are not used because animals are sick, but because feeding the animals low doses of antibiotics allows them to grow bigger and more quickly on smaller quantities of food in squalid conditions.

vivecaMorrisIf the use of antibiotics is not reined in, the World Health Organization warns, the world is headed for a future where routine infections that were once easily cured will be deadly.

Antibiotics are such a successful cure for many infectious diseases that many of us have little understanding of how devastating infectious diseases were before the discovery of penicillin in 1928.

Few realize that during the first decade of the twentieth century, over 40 percent of the deaths of people between the ages of five and 44 were caused by infectious diseases. By the 1970s, thanks to the wide availability of antibiotics, only 3 percent of people in the same age group died from infectious diseases.

This staggering change is why the WHO calls antibiotics the “health care miracle of the last 500 years.”

When Alexander Fleming accepted the Nobel Prize he warned that “there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to nonlethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”

Today, industrial meat producers in the U.S. are playing the role of the “ignorant man” on a massive scale. By feeding low levels of antibiotics to billions of food animals in the U.S. each year, they are fueling the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria at an unprecedented rate.

Despite growing awareness of the serious risks to humanity, the use of antibiotics in industrial animal agriculture is increasing. Sales of antibiotics for use in factory farms climbed 16 percent between 2009 and 2012, according to the FDA. More than 32 million pounds of antibiotics — often the same first-line antibiotics prescribed to humans — were fed to food animals in the U.S. in 2012.

Every time a bug is challenged by an antibiotic, it’s one more opportunity to become resistant to the antibiotic. This is especially true when antibiotics are administered at low levels. Giving enough antibiotic to weaken bugs, but not always kill them, gives them more chances to evolve into resistant strains.

Last month, a research team led by Yale microbiologist Jo Handelsman, who is now serving as associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which suggested a complex link between antibiotic use in agriculture and resistance in human pathogens.

Wayne Pacelle ’87, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, recently wrote a blog post about ractopamine, an antibiotic that is fed to animals to spur rapid lean muscle growth. Ractopamine is banned in 160 nations — including the European Union, Russia and China — because of its adverse side effects. Yet it is widely used in factory farms across the U.S. So beware — chances are good that you may be ingesting it with your Thanksgiving turkey.

Two weeks ago, the HSUS filed a lawsuit challenging the FDA’s approval of ractopamine and ractopamine combination drugs.

Antibiotic effectiveness is a very precious national resource that should not be squandered. It is part of the commons that we all rely on for our health and well-being.

If we continue to allow conglomerates to damage our commons with practices that lead to a rise of antibiotic resistant superbugs just so that they can boost their profits, we may all lose something that even money cannot buy — effective antibiotics.

With the shrinking number of effective antibiotics, Marc Sprenger, Director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention, told CBS News last week, “We are gradually returning to the ‘pre-antibiotic era’ when bacterial diseases could not be treated and most patients would die from their infection.”

At some point, most of us will have an infection or infectious disease that will require antibiotics to cure. If we want that lifesaving resource to be available, we need to take action to curb the food industry’s drug abuse.

Neither the USDA, which regulates agricultural practices, nor the FDA, which regulates drug use, has any restrictions regarding the use of antibiotics in the meat industry. Instead, they offer the industry an optional “framework for voluntarily adopting practices to ensure the appropriate, or judicious, use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals.”

Let your representatives in Congress know that they need to pass laws that halt the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals now. Tell them that your life, their lives and the lives of millions of others may depend on it.

Viveca Morris is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Her columns run on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at viveca.morris@yale.edu.