There is an increase in concern over the use of antibiotics in meat and chicken, in some part due to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The World Health Organization opposes the use of antibiotics for animals as prophylactics and to promote growth, and the European Union already restricts their use. Now, the United States is introducing a voluntary plan to phase out the use of antibiotics. Read on to discover the history behind these guidelines — and what their implications are for the future.
Antibiotic use for meat and poultry production
Since the 1950s, farmers have administered low doses of antibiotics to livestock regularly, not just to keep them from contracting infections but to also increase their size. There was a proposal in the 1970s to limit their use, but the practice did not change. Case in point: In 2011, 7.7 million pounds of antibiotics were sold for human use, while 29.9 million pounds were sold for meat and poultry production, according to Pew Charitable Trusts figures cited by CNN.
Antibiotic-resistant infections are a serious problem, leading to sickness in over two million Americans each year and a death toll of 23,000 people, according to figures in the New York Times. Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, said that the overuse of antibiotics can't be solely attributed to doctors over-prescribing them for human patients, claiming that “use in animals clearly has a part too.”
What the FDA is doing now
This past December, the FDA issued guidelines for animal pharmaceutical companies looking “to voluntarily remove growth enhancement and feed efficiency indications from the approved uses of their medically important antimicrobial drug products.” The drugs required for medical treatment of the animals would require veterinary approval, and those who opt in get three years to comply with the guidelines.
Why not issue an outright ban as the EU has done?
That is the question raised by the chicken industry in its response to the issue. The likely answer is that, in general, the U.S. interferes less than the EU in these matters, as shown by its request for voluntary cooperation. Further, many in the industry believe that the EU’s ban has proven some assumptions wrong: The National Chicken Council Antibiotics Issue Brief contends that the ban in Europe on prophylactic use of antibiotics has resulted in a larger number of sick and dead chickens. In addition, the sick chickens had to be given more antibiotics than they would have received if they had them as a preventative measure. But with these figures, it must be noted that an objective party will be needed to review and assess the facts and causes involved.
The brief also emphasizes that antibiotics administered to chickens are not the same as those prescribed to humans. Consequently, it argues that their use is not to be blamed for the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections. Ashley Peterson, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Chicken Council, declared that "the science shows that responsible and judicious use of FDA-approved antibiotics to treat and prevent disease in livestock and poultry is both safe and effective."
Will antibiotic-free poultry be readily available in the U.S. without legal intervention?
In a word, yes. And the reason for that is the increasing demand for antibiotic-free meat and chicken from consumers. A recent NPR article declared that the industry is listening to Americans' demands for antibiotic free chicken. Antibiotic-free chicken makes up about 9% of the $9 to $10 billion fresh chicken market, though it is growing rapidly. Even large poultry suppliers like Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods now offer antibiotic-free chicken options. Perdue is currently promoting its Harvestland product line as the nation’s leading antibiotic-free chicken brand.
Antibiotic-free at restaurant chains
Chain restaurants are also seeking to serve customers who don’t want to eat antibiotic-fed animal products. For the past 10 years, Chipotle Mexican Grill has been committed to using “animals raised without the use of antibiotics,” though it does allow itself the loophole of “whenever possible.” More recently, on February 11, Chick-fil-A, which calls itself the "second largest quick-service chicken restaurant chain in the United States," announced its intention to serve only chickens raised without antibiotics in all of its locations within five years. The move was prompted by what the company's customers said they wanted; 70% of them ranked it a top concern in surveys.
If the market demands it, the food supply will provide it. And there is a very strong incentive for chicken and meat producers to cooperate with the FDA guidelines: Access to the consumer adverse to antibiotics, in all shapes and forms.
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