On Wednesday, consumer advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against the FDA for their failure to address the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed. Factory farms  include antibiotics and antimicrobial drugs in animal feed to fight against the myriad of illnesses that cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys suffer from as a result of their CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) lifestyle (horrendous living conditions, restriction of natural behaviors, use of  unnatural feed and growth hormones). The antibiotics can also help increase production in food-producing animals which is an obvious plus for farmers. The major concern with this practice is that humans and animals will eventually become resistant to these drugs and then they will no longer be effective when they are really needed. The FDA itself has acknowledged that non-therapeutic use of antibiotics contributes to antimicrobial resistance in humans and has urged the meat industry to phase out antibiotics in feed. The FDA issued a draft guidance for the industry and recommends “judicious use” be applied. Specifically, the “FDA recommends that all antimicrobial drugs for animals and people be used only when necessary and appropriate.”

Farm groups have predictably expressed concern over the phase out of antibiotics because it would reduce production and, therefore, increase prices for consumers. They go as far as to say that the phaseout of antibiotics would have a tremendous negative impact on animal health and the safety of food.

The FDA’s draft guidance sounds promising until you read this part of their Q&A section:

Q: How will FDA implement the recommendations for judicious use?

A: To implement the recommendations for judicious use, FDA will actively work with drug companies; the veterinary, public health, and animal agriculture communities; and other stakeholders. FDA wants the recommendations to be implemented in a way that protects the health of animals and people. FDA does not want the recommendations to negatively impact animal health or disrupt the animal agriculture industry.

- Q&A on FDA’s Draft Guidance on the Judicious Use of Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals

There are two major problems with this paragraph. First, why is the FDA working with the drug companies on this? To say that the drug companies might be a wee bit biased would be the understatement of the century. Their only objective is to make sure their stock prices continue to climb. In January, Be Food Smart reported that an estimated 29 MILLION pounds of antimicrobial/antibiotics were given to farm animals in 2009. Do you think the drug companies want to see this number significantly decreased? The second major issue with the above answer is the fact the FDA doesn’t want to disrupt the animal agriculture industry.  God forbid that the FDA actually stand up for the health and welfare of animals and humans over the profits of factory farming industry for once. The bottom line is that the overuse of antibiotics is just a symptom of our gigantic mess of a food system. Nothing really changes until Americans realize we need to consume way fewer animal products, pay much more for them, and only consume what is sustainably produced. This is a huge step from where we are today and it is going to take action from all fronts – consumers, government and the food industry – to see any significant change.

What can you do?

Try adopting Meatless Mondays in your household or just generally reducing your overall intake of animal products. When you do consume animal products, purchase organic, pastured, grass-fed, free-range, hormone and antibiotic free whenever possible. For an extra step, buy local: direct from a local farm, farmers market or co-op. Realize that high quality meat, eggs and dairy will cost more, but if you reduce your overall intake, it will help with the food budget. Need further justification to spend more? High quality food is an investment in your family’s health; remember, it’s pay now or pay later with your health.

Note: Included in the FDA lawsuit are the following consumer advocacy groups: the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Public Citizen and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

Food Navigator

Image: eutrophication&hypoxia via Flickr (photo credit: US Department of Agriculture)