Why Are Antibiotics Still Used in Livestock?
Photo Courtesy Of: Hemera/Thinkstock
On December 22, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quietly posted a notice in the Federal Register that it was effectively reneging on its plan to reduce the use of antibiotics in agricultural animal feed – a plan it has been touting since 1977.
Now, with virtually no public announcement, the FDA has decided it will continue to allow livestock producers to use the drugs in feed, unabated; a move that is threatening food safety by contributing to the spread of new, antibiotic-resistant “super-germs.”
FDA Reverses its 30-Year-Old Promise to Get Antibiotics Out of Animal Feed
According to the Federal Register, dated December 22, 2011:
“The Food and Drug Administration (FDA or the Agency) is withdrawing two 1977 notices of opportunity for a hearing (NOOH), which proposed to withdraw certain approved uses of penicillin and tetracyclines intended for use in feeds for food-producing animals based in part on microbial food safety concerns.”
For those who aren’t aware, about 80 percent of all the antibiotics produced are used in agriculture — not only to fight infection, but to promote unhealthy (though profitable) weight gain.
As stated by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs:
“Continuous, low-dose administration of an antibiotic can increase the rate and efficiency of weight gain in healthy livestock. The presence of antibiotics likely changes the composition of the gut flora to favor growth. Debate is ongoing as to how gut flora are changed; change may simply be a reduction in numbers, a change in species composition or a combination of the two.… Some antibiotics may also enhance feed consumption and growth by stimulating metabolic processes within the animal.”
Unfortunately, this practice is also contributing to the alarming spread of antibiotic-resistant disease – a serious problem that the FDA acknowledged in a 2010 draft guidance, which also proposed that livestock producers STOP using “subtherapeutic,” small doses of antibiotics in animal feed:
“Antimicrobial drugs have been widely used in human and veterinary medicine for more than 50 years … The development of resistance to this important class of drugs, and the resulting loss of their effectiveness as antimicrobial therapies, poses a serious public health threat.
Misuse and overuse of antimicrobial drugs creates selective evolutionary pressure that enables antimicrobial resistant bacteria to increase in numbers more rapidly than antimicrobial susceptible bacteria and thus increases the opportunity for individuals to become infected by resistant bacteria. Because antimicrobial drug use contributes to the emergence of drug resistant organisms, these important drugs must be used judiciously in both animal and human medicine to slow the development of resistance.”
The FDA has long held — since 1977 in fact — that administering low doses of antibiotics to livestock, as is common among Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), was inappropriate, i.e. NOT a “judicial” use. Now, after withdrawing their approval for penicillin and tetracyclines for use in animal feeds, not surprisingly the FDA continues to pander to the drug industry and says it will focus its efforts on voluntary reform in the realm of antimicrobial use, which means the industry would have to decide to stop using low-dose antibiotics in animal feed on their own — a measure they have been vehemently opposed to because the antibiotics make the animals grow faster, which increases their profit margins.
So it’s unclear how the FDA expects their hope of “voluntary reform” to play out … or why they have caved to industry pressure once again in lieu of protecting public health.
On a slightly brighter note, in January the FDA announced it would restrict the use of one class of antibiotics, cephalosporin, in cattle, swine, chicken and turkey. The antibiotics, which are regularly prescribed to humans, are implicated in the development and spread of drug-resistant bacteria among humans that work with, and eat, the animals. The FDA said that starting April 5, the antibiotics would no longer be allowed for use in preventing diseases in livestock, although they will still be allowed for illness treatment in livestock.
Also, earlier this month, a federal magistrate judge ruled to restart the process that began 35 years ago, which intended to prevent antibiotics from losing their effectiveness in humans because of their widespread use in livestock.
Agricultural Antibiotic Use is Out of Control in the United States
Feeding livestock continuous, low-dose antibiotics creates a perfect storm for widespread disease proliferation – and, worse yet, antibiotic-resistant disease. This link is so clear-cut that the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in animal feed has been banned in Europe since 2006! In a press release dated January 1, 2006, it was stated:
“Antibiotics have been widely used in animal production for decades worldwide. Added in low doses to the feed of farm animals, they improve their growth performance. However, due to the emergence of microbes resistant to antibiotics which are used to treat human and animal infections (“anti-microbial resistance”), the Commission decided to phase out, and ultimately ban, the marketing and use of antibiotics as growth promoters in feed.
Markos Kyprianou, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, said: “This ban on antibiotics as growth promoters is of great importance, not only as part of the EU’s food safety strategy, but also when considering public health. We need to greatly reduce the non-essential use of antibiotics if we are to effectively address the problem of micro-organisms becoming resistant to treatments that we have relied on for years. Animal feed is the first step in the food chain, and so a good place to take action in trying to meet this objective.””
In contrast, according to the first-ever report by the FDA on the topic, CAFOs used a whopping 29 million pounds of antibiotics in 2009 alone. On these industrial farms, resistant bacteria are increasingly common. According to a 2009 University of Iowa study, 70 percent of hogs and 64 percent of workers in industrial animal confinements tested positive for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The study pointed out that once MRSA is introduced, it could spread broadly to other swine, as well as to their caretakers and in turn, their caretakers’ families and friends.
Furthermore, mounting evidence suggests the poultry industry’s indiscriminate use of antibiotics induces antibiotic resistance among food-borne bacteria that commonly infect humans. One such antibiotic-resistant strain is Campylobacter, a pathogen common to chicken products. Conventional CAFO chicken products are actually up to 460 times more likely to carry antibiotic-resistant strains than organic chicken products, which are antibiotic-free.
Antibiotics are not only embedded in your meats, they have made their way into your produce as well, as slow-to-biodegrade antibiotics are transferred, via the manure used as fertilizer, into your corn, lettuce, potatoes, and other crops.
Sadly, even eating organically may not entirely alleviate this problem, since organic crops, which cannot be fertilized with synthetic fertilizers, are the ones most often fertilized with manure. As it stands, conventional, factory-farmed animal manure containing antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria is still allowed under the USDA organic label.
The FDA is Not Protecting Your Food … So it’s Up to You
In a bitter irony, as the FDA decided the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from the blatant overuse of antibiotics in livestock was not worthy of regulatory action, yet another ground beef recall occurred in the same month, with at least 14 people becoming infected with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella lurking in the meat.
The stage is set for similar food recalls becoming increasingly common, as well as increasingly deadly, in the coming months and years, and the FDA is, as currently set up, powerless to stop it. Opinion columnist Mark Bittman said it well in the New York Times, echoing my sentiments on why you must take the responsibility for finding high-quality, non-tainted and antibiotic-free food into your own hands:
” … the F.D.A. is consistently under-financed and increasingly unable to do its job, which is largely to protect the public health … Here’s the nut: The F.D.A. has no money to spare, but the corporations that control the food industry have all they need, along with the political power it buys. That’s why we can say this without equivocation: public health, the quality of our food, and animal welfare are all sacrificed to the profits that can be made by raising animals in factories.
Plying “healthy” farm animals (the quotation marks because how healthy, after all, can battery chickens be?) with antibiotics — a practice the EU banned in 2006 — is as much a part of the American food system as childhood obesity and commodity corn. Animals move from farm to refrigerator case in record time; banning prophylactic drugs would slow this process down, and with it the meat industry’s rate of profit. Lawmakers beholden to corporate money are not about to let that happen, at least not without a fight.”
So What Can You Do?
First, if you’d like to make a comment on the FDA’s 2010 draft guidance, the one that called for the food industry to voluntarily stop the use of low dose antibiotics in animal feed, but that has never been finalized, you can do so here.
Next, you’ll need to choose your foods wisely, and this generally means shopping elsewhere than your local supermarket. This issue is actually one of the primary reasons why I ONLY recommend organic, grass-fed, free-range meats or organic pasture-raised chickens, as non-medical use of antibiotics is not permitted in organic farming.
Apart from growing it yourself, your best option to find these foods is to get to know a local farmer — one who uses non-toxic farming methods. If you live in an urban area, there are increasing numbers of community-supported agriculture programs available that offer access to healthy, locally grown foods even if you live in the heart of the city.
Being able to find high-quality meat is such an important issue for me personally that I’ve made connections with sources I know provide high-quality organic grass-fed beef and bison, free-range chicken and ostrich, all of which you can find in my online store. The farms our supplier uses have 3 USDA inspectors on hand that regularly inspect the packaging facility. Additionally, all of the cattle are grass-fed on open pastures, and E. coli 0157 testing is performed daily.
But you can eliminate the shipping charges if you find a trusted farmer right in your area.
The Weston Price Foundation has chapters all over the world and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase these types of foods locally. Another resource you can try is Local Harvest, which you can use to find farmers’ markets, family farms, and other sources of safe, sustainably grown food in your area.