Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
First it came for trans fats, and now the Food and Drug Administration has set its sights on antibiotics in animals raised for meat. The agency announced yesterday that it would begin working toward eliminating the drugs used by many poultry, cattle, and hog producers to keep their animals healthy and growing.
The FDA is keenly aware of the antibiotic-resistent disease epidemic, and this is one step it's taking toward combating the problem. Bacteria adapt to the constant presence of antibiotics by growing more resistant to them. And, when those bacteria make their way into the human population, conventional antibiotics are mostly, if not entirely, ineffective. The Centers for Disease Control reported in September that 23,000 people die each year as a result of antibiotic-resistant infections.
This is not an outright ban; however, the FDA is asking pharmaceutical companies to refrain from labeling certain drugs as fit for use in animal production. If those companies voluntarily decide to do so, antibiotics would be banned for use as growth enhancers and require a prescription to be administered to sick animals.
According to the AP, FDA deputy commissioner of foods "believes asking the industry to make changes is the fastest way to help phase the drugs out. If the FDA made the process mandatory, he said, the agency would have had to move forward with a complex regulatory process that could take years."
Some proponents of antibiotic-free livestock have said that the FDA's move doesn't go far enough. Assuming, however, that some pharmaceutical companies do follow the agency's guidance, the effects will be far-reaching in the meat and dairy production industry.
One reason antibiotics are used so widely is the fact that they've been shown to increase meat output, in some cases up to 50%. The other reason is that animals in large farming operations are often crowded together and overstressed, especially in the case of dairy cows. Those animals are more likely to develop diseases that require antibiotics, and spread them to the other animals around them.
While it may signal a coming blow to the bottom lines of food producers who will have to adapt their operations accordingly, the FDA's move is the first significant one it's taken in decades toward addressing the overuse of antibiotics in livestock. (The agency did ban the use of of one class of antibiotics last year, but today's announcement is more sweeping.) It may not be enough for some, but it's a step in the right direction. (ABCNews)