FDA zeroes in on antibiotics in agriculture

There’s an interesting shell game taking place in the debate over antibiotics in livestock.

This debate has simmered for decades, after drug companies and large livestock interests convinced the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to allow continuous low-level doses of antibiotics to be added to cattle, hog and poultry feed to accelerate the animals’ growth.

In late June though, the FDA issued a draft guidance policy recommending that medically important (think penicillin and tetracycline) antibiotics be prohibited as a growth-promoting feed additive.

The howls of protest have been deafening.

The President of the National Pork Producers’ Council said, “This guidance could eliminate certain antibiotics that are extremely important to the health of animals,” The Animal Health Institute, which represents antibiotic manufacturers, chimed in to predict that the move would mean “increased death and disease among animals.”

Thus comes the foreshadowing of industrial agriculture’s new strategy to continue using those antibiotics.

These interests are now pressuring the FDA to allow the low-level doses of antibiotics to continue to be fed to livestock as a means to “prevent” disease outbreaks in their herds and flocks.

Conventional agriculture has reasons to worry. After all, antibiotics in livestock feed is a cornerstone of large scale confinement production.

Years ago, the potential for disease and sickness limited the ability of farmers to raise animals in large-scale intensive operations. However, when FDA approved the use of feeding antibiotics to accelerate growth, the animals developed immunity to those common farmyard illnesses. The rush to consolidation was on.

In 1992, 102,106 farms sold 111.4 million hogs, and farms with more than 5,000 hogs accounted for 22 percent of those sales. By 2007, more than 27,000 of those farms left the hog business, even though the number of hogs sold annually had reached 206 million. Farms with more than 5,000 hogs now account for more than 87 percent of the production.

Evidence is mounting that the low-level feeding of antibiotics to livestock is contributing to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Don’t be deceived: The new chorus of PR proclaiming the importance of antibiotics as a “preventative tool” has nothing to do with preventing illnesses in humans.

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