Antibiotics for Food-Producing Animals, Part Two

This turkey could end up as ground meat

The August 13th edition of The Wall Street Journal contained an article extending the discussion of the recent ground-turkey-related disease outbreak and the routine use of antibiotics in animals raised as food. It noted that the FDA has been reviewing the subject for 40+ years without issuing firm restrictions, supposedly because of a lack of data on resultant health risks in people.

There's a long, long pattern of recommendations coming from scientific panels without any conclusive followup by the FDA or the USDA. The history of these committees and advisory groups is well documented in a Health and Human Services paper I found online and will briefly summarize. I'll provide a link for your own perusal if you get interested in reading more on the subject.

In 1968 the UK started a Joint Committee on the Use of Antibiotics in Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Medicine . The "Swann report" presented to Parliament the following year concluded "that the administration of antimicrobials to food-producing animals, particularly at sub-therapeutic levels, poses a hazard to human and animal health."

That seemed clear-cut to me. The report said that the increase in antibiotic-resistant enteric (intestinal) bacteria of animal origin resulted from the use of those drugs for growth promotion of farm animals.

enteric bacteria in their home turf

Since then, there have been a number of "expert panels" and task forces, both in the United States and elsewhere that have reached essentially the same conclusions. What's lacking is any large study (preferably more than one)  showing a direct connection between antibiotics being given to entire herds and resultant human illness. There has been a lot of "indirect evidence" implicating the widespread use of these drugs in animals as a potential human health hazard.

The animals in question, typically turkeys, chickens, cattle or pigs, are  not being treated for specific diseases. They are, en masse, given antibiotics in their feed or water, primarily to increase their weight gain (and thus their profitability for the companies raising them).

A spokeswoman for the National Turkey Federation was quoted as saying, "Antibiotics have been safely used on farms...for half a century to treat and control disease in animals and to improve the animal's (sic) overall health, allowing for greater productivity."

The article in The Wall Street Journal said, "Industry groups are cautious about regulation." They feel human health may actually be improved by the longstanding practice of antibiotics being added to feed and that meat prices are lower becuase the animals use less energy fighting disease and therefore grow faster.

Now six members of Congress asked the FDA to actually implement the proposed rules. After all, it's only been 40+ years and a number of outbreaks since the concept has first been proposed. There was another recall in April 2011, this one of ~55,000 pounds of ground turkey.

It's about time to tighten up the rules.

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