“Pathetic, token, and infuriating”

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Last Friday the FDA issued an order limiting meat producers’ use of one class of antibiotics (cephalosporins) to agency-approved uses only. After the development that I posted about recently — that the FDA was officially abandoning a decades-old proposal to stop the common factory-farm practice of indiscriminately including antibiotics in livestock feed — this is good news, right? Well, not so fast. Mark Bittman of The New York Times calls this latest move “a pathetic, token, and infuriating effort.”

Frank Morris of Harvest Public Media reports that the FDA’s hope is that restricting the use of these drugs will slow the development of antibiotic resistant infectious agents, like those that cause salmonella. But as he describes, “cephalosporins are just a tiny portion of the antibiotics used in American agriculture. Just a fraction of 1 percent. Growers do not add them to animal feed, as they do some other antibiotics.” As Dan Charles at NPR notes, “Some 80 percent of antibiotic drugs in the United States were sold for use in food animals, according to an analysis of FDA data by a researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Many of those are used to help animals grow faster and prevent infections from breaking out on big farms. Today’s announcement on cephalosporins doesn’t affect those antibiotics in feed [italics added].”

As Morris reports, “Brett Lorenzen, with the Environmental Working Group, said that kind of [routine] drug maintenance is necessary to keep animals alive in what he says are inherently unhealthy living environments. ‘The analogy that most people understand, is when you fly on the holidays, you often come home with a cold. You know you’re in a tube with a bunch of other people with four hours, with a closed air supply, and everybody shares whatever virus they’re carrying that week. That’s how most of the animals grown in America are raised. You know they’re in a closed building with 800 to a thousand other animals for their entire lives,’ Lorenzen said. So, routine antibiotic use is built into a system that keeps meat, milk and eggs coming all the time, at lower costs than would otherwise be possible.  And that’s big business, not something that’s easy to mess with politically.”

As Bittman concludes, “the F.D.A. will partially ban a disappearing family of antibiotics that is relatively non-existent in animal agriculture and that the meat industry does not rely upon. Not exactly a bold move. Kind of like protecting less than 1 percent of the acreage in the rainforest or 1 percent of the fish in the sea while allowing producers to devastate the rest, and patting yourself on the back to boot. It’s not black and white: The ban will have some kind of positive impact on human health. And if you’re supremely optimistic, you can call this an important first step for the F.D.A. in restricting the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals and guarding against the spread of antibiotic- resistant bacteria. But, unless this tiny first step is followed by some truly gigantic ones that stand up to the meat industry and restrict the sort of growth-promoting antibiotics that are actually being used in quantity and that pose the greatest risks to human health, then I’m afraid it won’t mean much at all.”

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