In order to meet consumer demand for meat, poultry, and milk, since the 1950’s medically important antibiotics have been routinely administered to otherwise healthy farm animals to “stimulate rapid growth and improve feed efficiency.” In simple terms, antibiotic use allowed for animals to increase in size while reducing their food allotment. Although the use of some drugs are banned in Canada and many EU countries, in the United States approximately 80% of the antibiotics manufactured go to livestock production. Because these drugs are also prescribed for human infections, this systemic overuse of antibiotics has greatly contributed to the rise of drug-resistant infections. (See article, The Rise Of The Superbugs, posted November 21, 2013).
In an attempt to safeguard drugs for medicinal use, on December 11, 2013 the FDA announced that they are implementing a plan that is designed to curb the use of low-dose sub-therapeutic antibiotics in food animal production. The FDA is requesting that pharmaceutical companies voluntarily commit to label changes and to cease promoting antibacterial drugs for growth and feed efficiency. Labeling changes would prevent over the counter sales of antibiotics that the FDA considers medically important to human health. Antibiotics would still be available to treat sick animals and to control or prevent disease for at-risk animals but only with a veterinary prescription.
Within three months, the FDA expects to be notified as to which companies will choose to be compliant. Michael Taylor, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food and Veterinary Medicine, believes that pharmaceutical companies will be supportive in the effort to protect public health. Companies will have three years to transition to the new labeling standards. Proponents of stricter regulations are skeptical that voluntary compliance is an adequate response to antibiotics overuse which some might call abuse. However, if antibiotic use is left unchecked, we are surely headed towards a public health crisis.
In this case, is any action better than inaction? Supporters of this initiative expect the change will lead to overall reduction. In the meantime, if you want to be sure you are not consuming antibiotics with your dinner, purchase organic milk, eggs and poultry and pasture raised organic beef reared by farmers who don’t rely on antibiotics as a preventative to keep their animals healthy or to fatten them up for market. In the battle of antibiotics versus bacteria, we need to remember that bacteria are living, thriving, mutating organisms that may be among the earliest lifeforms. In their aggressive quest for survival, germs that can adapt and develop a resistance to antibiotics clearly have a greater chance to perpetuate their species. From an evolutionary standpoint, limiting the use of antibiotics to medical necessity appears critical for human health.