The European Union and Canada have banned the use of antibiotics to promote growth in livestock, but America has time and time again fallen short of a ban. In fact, the EU banned the use of antibiotics in meat production way back in 1989, and US farmed meat has not been welcome in Europe since. What’s wrong with a little extra medicine in our food, you may ask. Well, taking antibiotics always comes with the risk of developing microbes that are resistant to antibiotic drugs. Often times it’s worth the risk when you’re sick, and most of us have experienced the wonders of modern medicine to fight infection and restore us to health in a matter of days.
However, by feeding healthy livestock antibiotics, the meat industry is putting all of us at risk for exposure to drug-resistant bacteria with no benefit to our health. Animals who have been fed antibiotics can develop drug-resistant microbes, which can be passed on to us by eating meat that wasn’t cooked or handled properly. Additionally, feces of animals that have been fed antibiotics can mix with water and fertilizer that is used on food crops, and resistant strains of bacteria can be passed to us simply by eating produce. Furthermore, the dangerous effects of overusing antibiotics are more clear today than they ever have been before. In an alarming report, the World Health Organization describes how our world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which infections and diseases that have been been easily curable in the age of modern medicine will once again become killers. Given the urgent need for a global cutback on antibiotic use, the FDA must be doing everything in its power to ban the use of antibiotics to fatten up livestock, right?
Wrong. A 2011 federal lawsuit filed against the FDA for allowing the non-health related use of antibiotics on livestock claimed that the FDA had been aware that feeding animals antibiotic drugs could result in drug-resistant bacteria since 1977, but has failed to act on this knowledge. More recently, a 2014 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the FDA has continued to allow the meat industry to use 18 drugs with a “high-risk” of exposing humans to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Instead of setting up a timetable for the comprehensive ban of the use of antibiotics on healthy livestock, the FDA has opted for a voluntary program in which the various stakeholders in the meat industry, such as agribusinesses and pharmaceutical companies, can voluntarily cutback use and sales of antibiotics. The FDA argues that this “collaborative” approach is the “fastest” way to implement the cessation of non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics.
Ummm, what? There’s nothing wrong with giving the meat industry some leeway in ending the use of antibiotics, such as an appropriate timeline and a date in the future when the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics will be banned. However, a voluntary program to reduce the amount of antibiotics fed to livestock hardly seems to address the severity of this issue. I have a hard time believing that the FDA chose a voluntary program because it’s the most efficient way to protect Americans from drug-resistant microbes. The meat and agricultural industries wield a lot of power in our government, often leading to programs that put their interests first.