Meat-Eaters Are Doing More Than the Government to Get Antibiotics Out of Food

The government keeps saying changes are being made, but the real motivation seems to be coming from consumer pressure.

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Sep 15 2015, 8:40pm

Photo by Ron Lute/Flickr

It seems as though every time we get an update on how the US is doing when it comes to the use of human antibiotics in farm animals, it's more bad news.

Take this report released by a number of nonprofit watchdogs on Tuesday, grading the top 25 fast-food and fast casual restaurants in the US on their use of antibiotic-fed livestock. Based on a number of grading criteria that included whether a restaurant had an antibiotics policy and which food items were covered by it, 20 of the restaurants received an F. Only two (Panera Bread and Chipotle) received an A, and none of the chains received a perfect score.

This is just the latest in a long line of grim reports, but that seems to be in contrast to the frequent reassurance from the government that changes are being made. So what gives?

"White House attention on a big, broad problem is great, but has it led to real change yet? I think the answer is no," Dr. David Wallinga, the senior health officer at the NRDC, told me over the phone.

For the last 40-50 years, the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in farm animals has been more or less standard practice. The trouble is when we overuse medically-important antibiotics (those are ones that humans use, too) in our livestock, it can create a breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

To address this issue, the US is currently in the process of putting an end to using antibiotics for growth promotion, through a number of measures. The main one is a set of guidelines under the Food and Drug Administration, which were announced back in 2013. They require antibiotics manufacturers to no longer sell their drugs as growth promoters, and remove all labelling promoting it as such. It also requires farmers to stop administering antibiotics to entire herds through food or water, and to get a vet's prescription before using antibiotics for disease prevention.

Earlier this year, President Obama also released a national action plan that underscored the need to phase out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion but also called for improved reporting and monitoring of antibiotic use, and a reduction in the overuse of antibiotics in humans through better testing (so patients aren't taking antibiotics unless they really need them).

All of these actions sound great, but there are a couple of problems. Firstly, they're just guidelines: legally, no company has to comply with what the FDA has laid out. Secondly, it's a slow process. The FDA's regulations were announced two years ago, but drug companies have until the end of next year before they are asked to comply. In a recent update, the FDA reported that all of the drug manufacturers affected by the new rules have agreed to comply, but of the 293 products affected, only one has had its growth promotion label removed so far.

These new guidelines also don't prevent farmers from using antibiotics for disease prevention, which is a big loophole to keep using the stuff to plump up chickens, pigs, and cows. Since antibiotics both prevent disease and (often) promote growth, it can be hard to distinguish between the two uses.

"The problem is that most of the antibiotics of concern are approved for both growth promotion and disease prevention," said Bob Martin, the Food System Policy Program director at Johns Hopkins University's Center for a Livable Future. "From a public health standpoint, the concern is that the actual use of the antibiotics won't change, it will just be called something else."

It's evidence that guidelines and pleas only have so much teeth, and actual legislation is needed to make any real changes. That legislation has been talked about since 1999, but has yet to gain any traction in Congress.

"Companies will respond to the marketplace."

Luckily there is a power nearly as persuasive as federal regulations: the all-mighty dollar. Pressure from consumers convinced McDonald's to switch to human-antibiotic-free chicken, and for two of the country's largest poultry producers to start cutting out the use of human antibiotics. And the groups behind the fast food report card think consumer pressure could convince other retailers to follow suit.

"If all of the fast food chains did away with it, I think it would make a drastic change on how we raise animals in the US," said Steven Roach, the food safety program director at Food Animal Concerns Trust and an analyst for Keep Antibiotics Working.

Roach pointed out that almost half of the money Americans spend on food is spent eating out, so fast food has a decent chunk of the market. Pressure from restaurants to cut out antibiotics could be enough to stimulate most producers into making changes, though it's not a flawless plan.

"The problem with the 'regulation by retail' aspect is there's no real third-party verification: how are we going to verify that McDonald's is only sourcing chicken raised without human antibiotics?" Martin said. "But the market can play a real good role, and companies will respond to the marketplace."

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