Regulating food today for better health tomorrow
As millions of Americans gather around dinner tables this holiday season, there's no better time to be mindful of where our food comes from and who is ensuring its safety. This is particularly important when it comes to meat and poultry, because the misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is leading to the creation of antibiotic-resistant superbugs that threaten human health, and there is no regulation in sight.
Most people probably would be surprised to learn that 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are used in animal agriculture. The vast majority is for non-therapeutic purposes, such as promoting growth and compensating for effects of unsanitary and overcrowded conditions. Many of the antibiotics used in food animal production, such as penicillins and tetracyclines, are the same drugs we rely on to treat human illnesses, and therein lies the problem.
Scientists say there is no question that improper use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is leading to the development of resistant bacteria and diluting the effectiveness of the drugs for both animals and people. The Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics has estimated that antibiotic-resistant bacteria generate $16.6 billion to $26 billion per year in extra costs to the U.S. health-care system.
Since 1977, the FDA has been trying to curtail the improper use of antibiotics when producing meat, dairy and egg products, but stiff opposition from industry has stopped it every time. But this past year it looked like the FDA was finally ready to take a firm stand on the issue.
In June 2010, the FDA's former principal deputy commissioner, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, called a news conference to issue a draft guidance that would set the stage for stronger regulations. Sharfstein called the overuse of antibiotics in animals, "an urgent public health issue" (Washington Post, FDA seeks less use of antibiotics in animals to keep them effective for humans, June 29, 2010). Sharfstein also recommended that industry voluntarily take steps to fix the problem on its own, rather than have the FDA impose regulations on it.
Not only has industry done nothing to fix the problem, the amount of antibiotics purchased for use in animals has actually increased. This past year, for the first time, the FDA released 2009 data showing exactly how much antibiotics were sold for use in animals - 28.8 million pounds, four times the 7.2 million pounds sold for human use. Newly released data for 2010 show the overall amount used in animals increased to 29.1 million pounds.
Knowing that industry has not taken the FDA's warning seriously, you'd think agency leaders would say enough is enough. But sadly, it seems the FDA has lost its backbone. Just last week it denied two petitions to ban use of certain antibiotics in animals raised for food. The petitions were filed by organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association and the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
When pressed to explain why the petitions were denied, the FDA reportedly said its hands were tied. If so, by whom? If industry will not voluntarily stop irresponsible use of antibiotics on its own, then it is time we demand our government do what Americans have entrusted it to do and impose stiff regulations to protect us.
McDonnell is founder and CEO of Applegate Natural and Organic Meats and a member of the American Sustainable Business Council.