In big news from the Food and Drug Administration yesterday, the federal agency issued guidelines regarding the use of antibiotics by livestock growers. This FDA plan has been eagerly awaited for decades by health and consumer advocates. We’ll explain…
Antibiotics were a miracle drug of the twentieth century. Doctors prescribe them to us when we are sick (ear infection anyone?) and within a few days all is good. Antibiotics are also widely used in animal husbandry. In fact, over 80% of antibiotics sold in the US is for animal use. You would think that animals are very sick, but the truth is more complicated.
At some point, farmers realized that low doses of antibiotics, mixed with animal feed and continually administered to livestock, help the animals grow bigger and faster. This means more profit. Who doesn’t like that?
Starting in the 1970′s, something interesting and scary started to happen. Antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria started to emerge. An arms race of sorts began to develop, where newer and more powerful antibiotics worked for a while, until a new bacteria popped up that was unaffected. Evolution on steroids, if you will.
The threat of bacterial resistance is very real. Imagine yourself not being able to undergo important surgery because the risk of infection is too high – no antibiotic would be able to keep you safe from these killer strains of bacteria. That’s where we are headed if we don’t put a serious curb on the use of antibiotics in animal use.
Finally, some would say too late, the FDA issued its plan. It calls for farmers to phase out the use of antibiotics for animal growth promotion in the next three years. But here’s the catch – the program is totally voluntary!!
Another issue is that even if farmers agree to stop using antibiotics for growth promotion, they would still be allowed to use them for sick animals. Unfortunately, many animals lead very sick lives because of the crowded and dirty conditions in which they are raised. Huge CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) leave cows to stand in their own feces pretty much their whole lives. Doesn’t sound too healthy, does it?
Nevertheless, we should commend the FDA for this important first step. It will put a bit more pressure on farmers and drug companies. But if Europe is to serve as an example, only strict restrictions and fines can truly bring about a change in the industry.
What’s a meat eater to do?
If you want to eat meat and poultry that has not had antibiotic treatment for growth, your best bet is to choose organic. Some non-organic products will be labeled “no antibiotics used”, but you will need to contact the producer to understand exactly what they mean by that.