Julie Whittington, RD

Healthy tips from a Registered Dietitian

Judge orders FDA to begin enforcing 1977 rule to ban widespread use of antibiotics in animals

Many health advocates are excited about the new pressure placed on the FDA to ban the widespread use of antibiotics in animals designated for human consumption. 

For decades, the use of antibiotics in cattle, poultry and pigs has been used to prevent infections and enhance growth of the animals.  However, the widespread use of antibiotics began to concern health officials in the 1970s, as fears of antibiotic-resistant infections began to rise.  In fact, the FDA announced in 1977 it would begin the process of regulating antibiotics, including banning some of them.  The FDA had agreed then that the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock was unsafe.  However, significant progress with the ban was not made and in December 2011, the FDA decided to drop their policy to regulate antibiotics in animal feed. 

Worries about “superbugs,” resistant to antibiotics such as penicillin and tetracycline, have continued through the years.  The thought has been that the overuse in agriculture is leading to antibiotic resistance in humans (which is on the rise.) 

Currently, about 70-80 percent of antibiotics used in the US have been cited as used in cattle, chicken and pigs, rather than humans.  And, most of these are used in a way to prevent illness rather than to treat it.  That means that a perfectly healthy cow could be given antibiotics (in its feed or water) in order to prevent its living conditions from making it sick.  This then may make that cow larger and stronger, thus more valuable in the marketplace.

Just this March, a judge in New York sided with several public safety groups and ordered the FDA to begin enforcing their own 1977 rule to ban the widespread use of antibiotics.  While the FDA deliberates its next steps, we can only hope that progress will be made.  Additionally, since many agriculturalists support the use of antibiotics to prevent disease, rather than to simply promote growth, this may present a challenge in getting the antibiotics banned.

Many consumers already show their support of the ban by purchasing organic or antibiotic free meat and poultry.  One of the many benefits of organic animal products is that no antibiotics may be given to the animals.  If it is necessary that an animal receive antibiotics due to illness, that animal cannot be returned to the food supply.  Organic farming practices rely upon healthy living conditions, good nutrition and proper animal care in order to prevent infections.

So for now, we can educate ourselves about antibiotic resistance and support policies that prevent the overuse of antibiotics.  For general information about antibiotic resistance, visit: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs194/en/

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