The antibiotics future

Will the FDA get them out of our meat?

December 20, 2013

On the website Medium, the science reporter Maryn McKenna recently published a thoughtful look at antibiotics: how we discovered them, how wonderful they were for a brief while, and now, how we’ve used them to death.

What, McKenna wonders, will the future look like? How many people will die — as her great-uncle died in 1938, and as people are dying again today — from infected scrapes? How many people will get sick or die from exposure to contaminated but antibiotic-resistant animals, fish, or apples?

Could modern agriculture manage to find a way to keep going without antibiotics at all?

Eighty percent of the antibiotics doled out in the U.S., McKenna noted, are given to livestock, not to humans. And in December 2011, when the FDA gave up on trying to eradicate antibiotics from animal feed, it seemed like the antibiotics had won.

So it was a bit of a stunner when, in early December of this year, the FDA announced a new plan to restrict antibiotic use in animals raised for meat. As the New York Times phrased it: “This is the agency’s first serious attempt in decades to curb what experts have long regarded as the systematic overuse of antibiotics in healthy farm animals, with the drugs typically added directly into their feed and water.”

But, as food-politics watchdog Tom Philpott reported, this “serious attempt” is merely voluntary, not mandatory, and the centerpiece of the plan — restricting antibiotic use on farms to veterinarian prescriptions — is just a proposal so far.

However, Philpott adds, the FDA plan does try to reduce overall antibiotic use by addressing what he calls “the prevention loophole.” Here’s what he’s talking about:

Currently, factory livestock farms use antibiotics in three ways. The first is what the FDA calls “production”: the livestock industry discovered in the 1950s that when animals get small daily antibiotic doses, they put on weight faster, and the practice has been embraced ever since. No. 2 is disease “prevention”: when you concentrate animals together, they’re prone to illness and pass diseases among themselves quickly. Daily antibiotic doses can boost their immune systems and keep them from coming down with bugs. The third use is disease treatment, the one we humans are familiar with: you come down with a bacterial bug and and treat it with antibiotics.

According to Philpott, most farms generally tackle production and prevention at the same time, by blanketing all of their livestock with low doses of antibiotics. But the FDA’s plan curtails this, by restricting antibiotics use for “prevention” only to animals that might be susceptible to specific diseases.

Still, like Philpott, most critics are skeptical. Mark Bittman, in particular, was scathing, pointing out that the FDA has the power to actually enforce its rules, instead of simply offering guidelines. His analogy was to the recent minimum-wage battles:

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The FDA is claiming, “We’re controlling the use of antibiotics in animal production!” But it’s more like Congress declaring, “We’re raising the minimum wage!” and then appending “. . . by 10 cents an hour. And we’ll review the impact of this monumental change in three years!” . . . Public safety is the FDA’s job, and they’re doing it badly.

As the Washington Post reported, not only are the new suggested rules just that — suggestions — but they’re easily circumvented, especially by pharmaceutical companies, which have the most to lose if antibiotics are banned in livestock.

And the Post was not optimistic about real political change: “Most bills and regulations that would improve matters on these fronts tend to die a quick death in Congress and state legislatures.”

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