Rutgers Students making a difference on Spring Break

IMG_1347A group of Rutgers students spent their spring break going door to door in communities across New Jersey raising awareness and gaining support to end the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms.

The students are volunteers for the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, otherwise known as NJPIRG.  They have been working with the national arm of the organization, U.S. PIRG, on a campaign to convince some of the nation’s largest meat buyers and sellers to reduce their reliance on animals raised with the same antibiotics used to treat humans.

“Most of the people we talked to were excited about this campaign because they understood the harm overusing antibiotics on factory farms can have,” Becky Erdelyi said, a Rutgers junior and NJPIRG volunteer.

The students’ work comes on the heels of McDonald’s potentially paradigm-shifting announcement that it would phase out chickens raised with antibiotics that are important to human medicine over the next two years.

“McDonald’s believes that any animals that become ill deserve appropriate veterinary care and our suppliers will continue to treat poultry with prescribed antibiotics, and then they will no longer be included in our food supply,” Marion Gross said, the senior vice president of McDonald’s North America Supply Chain in a press release.

U.S. PIRG has been running a nationwide campaign for over two years, drawing responses from communities and campuses around the nation and online. Their work has helped show McDonald’s that Americans have a growing concern about the role food production plays in the proliferation of antibiotic resistant diseases.

“Antibiotic resistant diseases are a serious concern for the people we’re talking to and we’ve been able to offer them a real solution that they can do something about,” said Arielle Mizrahi, a Rutgers sophomore and NJPIRG volunteer.

The students hope to see antibiotic-free meats become readily available to New Jersey communities in the near future.

“We will see this start to trickle down slowly and meats we purchase at the supermarket will be a little bit safer,” said Loren Whitaker, a Rutgers Newark student and NJPIRG campus organizer.

More than 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States for medical use are being used on livestock and poultry. Most of the animals treated with the medically important drugs are not sick at the time of administration, according to a statement released by NJPIRG.

“The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported last year that 2 million people contracted antibiotic resistant infections and at least 23,000 people die each year because of antibiotic resistance,” said Whitaker.

The corporate sector understands American’s desire for antibiotic free meat — Chipotle, Panera Bread, Shake Shack and shortly after the McDonald’s announcement, Costco, one of the nation’s largest meat providers, have all pledged to curb the overuse of antibiotics on farms. With these changes in place, the NJPIRG is now setting its sights on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“We would like the FDA to take a strong stand by initiating policies to make sure that antibiotics are only used for animals that are actually sick, not just giving them to the general population of the farm,” Whitaker said.

In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration issued a voluntary plan for the farming industry to phase out the use of medically important antibiotics used for enhanced food production.

Viewing the FDA’s move as not enough, the students are looking to build support so the FDA will implement more serious policies to insure public health is not affected by the food we consume.

“We are losing the fight right now in terms of antibiotics, less drugs are working when it comes to fighting infections. If we don’t do something now, we’ll lose more and more antibiotics that will actually treat disease,” Whitaker said.