Winning the war on antibiotics in agriculture

Winning the war on antibiotics in agriculture

The nation's biggest pharmaceutical companies have agreed to voluntarily phase out the use of “medically important” antibiotics for promoting growth in livestock. It's a good and necessary step toward improving public health and a positive move for the natural products industry.

We may be winning the war on drugs…at least when it comes to the production of animals in agriculture.

An announcement in late March that 25 pharmaceutical companies would voluntarily phase out the use of “medically important” antibiotics for promoting growth in livestock. is a giant step forward in protecting the health of our families, and the farm animals that feed them. Those 25 companies produce more than 99 percent of the antibiotics now used in livestock production.

This announcement wasn’t the result of some type of epiphany moment that came to the 25 companies. The drug makers were simply responding to regulations issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration late last year. The new policy, scheduled to take effect over three years, will narrow the allowable uses of antibiotics, effectively making it illegal for farmers and ranchers to use them to make animals grow bigger.

Meanwhile, the FDA is now taking a harder look at other livestock growth promoting drugs following new evidence that Zilmax, a widely used supplement that speeds the time cattle take to get to slaughter, had caused the death of more than 3,800 cattle in 10 finishing facilities in 2011 and 2012. Merck, the maker of Zilmax, vehemently denies that the drug was the cause of those deaths, even though it temporarily suspended the sale of Zilmax last summer after some deaths first began to be reported.

These two developments indicate that perhaps we’ve started to turn the corner on the use of growth promoting antibiotics and steroids in animal production. “Started” is the critical word in that previous sentence.

From the day in 1980 when Mel Coleman, Sr. attempted to label the all-natural beef from his ranch as produced without antibiotics or growth hormones, individual family ranchers and natural food industry leaders have battled to eliminate these products from livestock production. Through the years these critics of the overuse of drugs in animal agriculture have been tagged with labels ranging from “fear-mongers” to “Luddites.” Anyone compiling data supporting those concerns was brushed aside as a “pseudo-scientist.”

Then, medical doctors began linking the sharp increase in antibiotic resistant illnesses in their patients with the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock feed. And, feedlot operators notice a spike in the number of problems in cattle that were pumped up on Zilmax.

The mounting evidence eventually couldn’t be ignored.

The FDA finally issued a draft guidance statement urging restrictions on medically important antibiotics in agriculture in early 2012. The agency has yet to issue any guidance or regulatory action on growth promotants like Zilmax, but the pressure for action is mounting.

Fortunately, a growing group of cattle ranchers and other livestock producers are taking a “Just Say No” approach to using those drugs in their herds. Consumers in the marketplace have an opportunity to support the commitment of those producers—and to continue to put pressure on the FDA—each time they purchase meat and poultry in their local food store.

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