Chances are your hamburger is on drugs. Not the illegal kind—probably—but the medicinal sort. Though the statistics are fuzzy, environmentalists and sustainable food advocates believes vast amounts of antibiotics are delivered at low levels to farm animals, to promote rapid growth and produce meat more cheaply. According to a recent study (PDF) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), some 80% of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in farm animals, not in human beings, and 90% of that amount is dispensed through feed or water. Greens and many public health authorities fear that the overuse of antibiotics in animals can lead to drug-resistant bacteria, which can spread from the farm to the household. It’s an argument that the meat industry has repeatedly attacked, but one that has been steadily gaining traction—the World Health Organization has called for the elimination of non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics for growth promotion, and last year the FDA began urging farmers to reduce the amount of drugs they’re giving their animals.
Now greens are taking their campaign a step further. Today a coalition of environmental and consumer groups filed a federal lawsuit against the FDA over the use of antibiotics in animal feed. The suit (access the complaint here) alleges that the FDA concluded back in 1977 that the practice of feeding drugs like penicillin to otherwise healthy farm animals for the purposes of growth promotion could lead to resistant bacteria, but the agency has failed to do anything about it. Said Natural Resources Defense Council’s Peter Lehner in a statement:
More than a generation has passed since FDA first recognized the potential human health consequences of feeding large quantities of antibiotics to healthy animal. Accumulating evidence shows that antibiotics are becoming less effective, while our grocery store meat is increasingly laden with drug-resistant bacteria. The FDA needs to put the American people first by ensuring that antibiotics continue to serve their primary purpose — saving human lives by combating disease.
The lawsuit was cheered by Democratic Representative Louise Slaughter, Congress’s only microbiologist and a lonely voice against the overuse of drugs in animal feed:
The growth of potentially deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a looming public health crisis in America. Today’s lawsuit is an indication of the growing concern about the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. We should be able to buy our food without worrying that eating it will expose our families to bacteria no longer responsive to medical treatments. The FDA needs to take common sense steps to reduce the needless use of antibiotics in healthy animals, and protect human beings
The FDA hasn’t responded to the suit yet, but greens will face an uphill battle trying to convince the federal government to restrict the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. The agricultural lobby is a powerful one, and it has fought any effort to reduce drug use, claiming that restrictions would lead to sicker animals and more expensive food—an argument that might have more traction in these days of high food prices. A bill Slaughter first proposed in 2007 that would have restricted antibiotics for growth promotion has gone nowhere.
But European countries have had success in reducing antibiotics without damaging meat production. Denmark—the biggest pork exporter in the world—banned the use of antibiotics in chickens and adult swine in 1998, and young swine in 1999, out of concern for drug resistance. Though it took industry a few years to adjust, today antibiotic use is down overall, while livestock production has increased. (Drugs are still allowed for treating sick animals, but their use is controlled by veterinarians.) I had a chance to visit some Danish pork producers on a trip to Copenhagen in 2009, and found that industrial scale pork production was possible without excessive antibiotic use—farmers just needed to use a little more care in raising their animals. Come on, American farmers—if a bunch of Danes can do it, surely you can too.
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