FDA trying to curb overuse of antibiotics in agriculture

The use of antibiotics has been common in the meat industry for a long time, not only to treat sick farm animals or to protect them from diseases, but also to foster their growth.
It seems that small doses of antibiotics administered daily makes the animals gain weight faster. According to a recent report in The New York Times (6/29/2010), 70 percent of the antibiotics used in agriculture are simply for the promotion of animal growth, not to fight illnesses.
While it is not altogether clear why exactly antibiotics, like tetracycline, have this growth-enhancing effect, there is speculation that the drugs kill the natural flora in the animals' intestines and, therefore, allow for more efficient absorption of their feed. For an industry that measures profits in miniscule amounts, any weight gain is a welcome bonus.
Recently, although not for the first time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has raised concerns about the use of antibiotics for growth purposes, saying that the practice may lead to health risks for humans. To be sure, the treatment of livestock with antibiotics per se is not being questioned by the agency.
However, some scientists have become increasingly worried about the treatment of farm animals with the same drugs that are also applied to fight diseases in humans.
If certain antibiotics are routinely administered to animals over long periods of time, the bacteria living in those animals will eventually become resistant to these drugs. In turn, the drugs themselves may no longer be effective to treat humans with illnesses or infections caused by these bacteria.
A case in point is the controversy over an antibiotic named Baytril. This drug is widely used by poultry farmers to protect their chickens and turkeys against E-coli infections. Baytril is a sister drug of Cipro, which was developed for the treatment of humans. Both belong to the same class of antibiotics, known as fluoroquinolone, and are among the most effective drugs of this kind we have currently available. For years, the FDA, medical experts and consumer advocates have all warned that Baytril should not be used for agricultural purposes, because it potentially compromises the efficiency of Cipro and other antibiotics needed to treat humans.
The meat industry continues to promote the facilitation of antibiotics as an absolutely vital tool for the protection of both livestock and consumers against the threat of numerous diseases. Although there is a growing awareness among animal feed producers that spreading antibacterial resistance is a serious problem, defenders of antibiotic drug use in agriculture point out that people are already overexposed to antibiotics through medical treatment. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly warned against the excessive prescription of antibiotic drugs for minor illnesses and infections.
The bottom line is that as consumers and as patients we are at risk of being overdosed with antibiotics by ways of food intake and medical treatment. As more bacteria become resistant to the most commonly available drugs, we find ourselves more and more vulnerable to diseases we have no means left to fight.
Already the effects are quite alarming. More than 100,000 patients die annually from infections they acquired in hospitals - caused by bacteria that have become resistant to the available antibiotics. And these people succumbed while they were under medical supervision. The total number of victims is completely unknown.
It is clear that the meat industry is not going to eliminate or reduce even the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics any time soon. According to a report released by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), discontinuing these drugs for growth purposes would inevitably lead to "decrease in feed efficiency, raise food costs, reduce production and raise prices for consumers." An outright ban on antibiotics beyond disease control would cause tens of millions of dollars in annual losses for the industry, the USDA report concludes. In a word - it's not going to happen.
The FDA's renewed demands for changing these policies will probably (again) not be successful. Of course, that is not all the agency's fault. There is simply not enough political will to stand up to so much industrial might. However, as consumers, we can make our voices heard through our pocketbooks. Producers and purveyors of meat products are already beginning to take notice and are searching for ways to reduce drug use for the sole purpose of growth enhancement.
Unfortunately, the only alternative we have for now is to buy organically-farmed meat and poultry - for a higher price, of course. But if the demand for organic animal farming methods keeps going up, the rest of the industry will eventually respond - or so we can hope.[[In-content Ad]]