Ambiguity on Animals and Antibiotics
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been sending some rather mixed messages on the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture lately. Acknowledged as a serious issue by scientists for decades, the risks of overusing antibiotics in farming have grown tremendously. Despite this, the FDA has recently reversed its 34-year-old intentions to limit the non-essential use of the most commonly used antibiotics in animal farming and is changing gears by asking the industry to regulate itself.
This issue has many concerns for animals and people. About 80 percent of antibiotic drugs produced for the American market are used for raising animals in factory farms. The vast majority of these drugs are administered to animals for non-essential purposes, added in small doses to their feed and water to promote fast growth and minimize the spread of disease. Administering such low doses of antibiotics on a regular basis creates a perfect environment for microorganisms to develop resistance to these treatments. The alarming consequence of this is the rise of multidrug resistant “superbugs”, such as deadly strains of e. coli, the MRSA “staph” infection, and new threats such as the Acinetobacter organism which made headlines after affecting troops deployed in Iraq. The serious public health risks of this issue have already been documented by hospital workers and food-safety testers across the country. Further, an estimated 80 to 90 percent of antibiotics given to farm animals are undigested and passed into local watersheds, inundating almost half of American streams with pharmaceutical pollutants.
The very heart of this issue comes down to our treatment of farmed animals. The overuse of antibiotics in factory farms is a direct result of confining animals by large numbers in their own excrement. Giving non-therapeutic antibiotics in low doses to farmed animals is the only way companies can continue to raise them in such unsanitary conditions. There is no reason for using medical treatments to offset despicable environmental conditions other than maximizing profit. There are definitely many legitimate veterinary needs for antibiotics in treating specific instances of infection, injury, or disease on an animal farm; but in the vast majority of cases, this is not how they are used. If one of us took a doctor-prescribed dose of antibiotics to treat an inner ear infection, we would see that as an acceptable use of medicine. If one of us were to routinely take low doses of un-prescribed antibiotics just because we kept a filthy bathroom, we would see that as a reckless use of such medication.
The FDA’s current stance appears to lean heavily on voluntary regulation by the meat industry. FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor recently summarized this in an interview: “We've been reaching out to constituencies - the animal drug industry, the veterinary community, the animal production community - to craft a strategy. We do believe we can make serious progress, rapidly, through this voluntary phase-out strategy.” In contrast to this notion, antibiotic usage by the American meat industry has increased steadily each year.
Despite the complexity of the issue, there are some simple things we can do. Legislation to address this problem has been proposed in Congress via the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act by Rep. Louise Slaughter (Dem., NY). This would specifically restrict the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics and limit them to legitimate veterinary applications. The bill is currently in committee, and any public show of support will help its chances of being passed. The FDA is also currently accepting public comments concerning “The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals.” Perhaps the simplest yet most important steps we can take is to remember our power as consumers: supply will always be dictated by demand. Every step we take to reduce our consumption of animal products and embrace a more plant-based lifestyle strikes a resonant blow to the industries that profit from animal exploitation.