The US agricultural industry has routinely fed antibiotics to livestock and poultry for more than 50 years. In fact, while medical use of antibiotics accounts for approximately 20 percent of global sales, the agricultural industry buys the other 80 percent as a way to promote weight gain and prevent disease in livestock and poultry. Such large-scale antibiotic sales translate to nearly 20 billion pounds of antibiotics per year getting mixed into animal feed and water in the United States. Many of these antibiotics are the very same ones used to treat infections in humans.
In recent years, studies have shown that such liberal use of antibiotics has greatly contributed to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains, including those that can infect people. While antibiotic resistance can develop naturally in bacteria, the widespread use of antibiotics on such a large scale greatly accelerates that process, according to researchers.
The FDA’s recent announcement to implement voluntary cooperation with the aim to “phase out the use of certain antibiotics for enhanced food production” in the agricultural industry is a welcome first step in addressing what is widely recognized as a major public health threat: the promotion of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Whether the effort will sufficiently address the problem is undetermined, but the FDA should be applauded for taking this stance.
It’s important to note that regulation of antimicrobials is not new to the FDA. The agency recently began a voluntary phasing out of some arsenic-based antiparasitic feed additives that pose public health risks due to accumulation of arsenic in chicken and turkey.
Time will tell if voluntary efforts will engage the agricultural industry to address public health concerns raised by such practices. If not, agricultural industry regulation may be necessary. For the time being, consumers can support reduction in antibiotic use by identifying meat products labeled as “organic” or “antibiotic-free.”