Any parent who has reached for amoxicillin to relieve their children’s painful ear infection owes a debt of gratitude to the scientists who developed penicillin in 1928. Penicillin's younger cousin, tetracycline, helps uncounted teenagers weather the acne phase of growing up, and has saved millions of people from dying of cholera.
Today, more than 14,000 tons of penicillin, tetracycline, and other antibiotics are used each year on farms and ranches across America. That’s the equivalent of more than 50 billion of the 250 mg. doses that doctors prescribe for humans.
It’s not that America’s hogs, cattle and chickens are experiencing an outbreak of acne, ear infections, or even cholera. In fact, the vast majority of animals receiving the antibiotics found in your medicine cabinet aren’t even sick.
Decades ago, scientists discovered that including small amounts of antibiotics in animal feed resulted in faster growth and higher meat production per animal. Today, these “sub-therapeutic” doses of antibiotics are included in nearly every type of animal feed ration.
Of course, government regulators want to protect consumers from exposure to these antibiotics, so they require a “withdrawal period” during which the animals are not fed the antibiotics before being processed. But, the flawed logic behind using withdrawal periods to protect us from exposure to these antibiotics stinks…literally. It’s a basic fact of biology: a large portion of what goes into the animal’s mouth comes out the other end. One scientific study a few years back calculated that 532 tons of medically-important antibiotics ended up in the soil and waterways of Iowa alone each year after being excreted from farm animals.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration a few years ago began to develop voluntary guidance policies to encourage livestock producers to limit the use of antibiotics in animal feed. A couple of environmental groups thought the agency should go further and ban the use of antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals, and took their case to federal court. In July, an Appeals Court halted that effort.
Last week, several top chefs and restaurant owners in Chicago called on Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in livestock production. They are particularly targeting legislation introduced more than a year ago by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY). Those bills have been mired in the Congressional morass since their introduction.
The Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition last week said that—until Congress acts—customers should “vote with their dollars" and stop buying meat and poultry produced from animals fed the low-level doses of antibiotics.
That’s a campaign everyone should support this election year.