The F.D.A.’s Blatant Failure on Food

August 1st, 2014

New York Times

fda_hogs

               Image Source: FDA

EVERY year, antibiotic-resistant infections kill at least 23,000 Americans and make another two million sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s why a recent ruling by the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals is so appalling.

It allows the federal Food and Drug Administration to leave an antibiotic used in animal feed on the market even if the agency openly states that the drug’s use is not safe and increases the risk of antibiotic resistance in people.  This means that the dangerous misuse of antibiotics in industrial livestock and poultry can continue unabated.

For years industrial meat and poultry producers have fed healthy animals antibiotics to fatten them up fast. The antibiotics also prevent disease in what are often overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. This practice breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten us all.

The F.D.A. has issued a toothless voluntary guidance document for the industry, which requires no action to reduce antibiotic use and will therefore do little to nothing to stop the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Why should we be concerned? Because the superbugs bred on industrial farms can easily travel to us in our food — as in the recent antibiotic-resistant salmonella outbreak linked to Foster Farms chicken that has sickened over 600 people. The superbugs also get into our water and our soil. Some of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria can cause life-threatening infections.

While prescribing unnecessary antibiotics to people is one widely known cause of the problem, the C.D.C. and leading medical groups have identified the misuse of drugs in livestock and poultry operations as another important contributor. Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the C.D.C. director, has said of antibiotic resistance, “If we don’t act now, our medicine cabinet will be empty and we won’t have the antibiotics we need to save lives.” That’s a truly terrifying prospect.

And it’s one we don’t need to face. Although many industrial farmers claim that cleaning up their act will cost the rest of us at the cash register, responsible producers from Missouri to Denmark are already raising healthy livestock and poultry at competitive prices without the use of unnecessary drugs. Some mainstream food companies and their suppliers are starting to move in that direction, but it’s time all of the big meat and poultry firms joined them.

A fifth-generation pork producer, Russ Kremer of Missouri, is showing the way. In 1989, after an antibiotic-resistant infection from one of his pigs nearly killed him, he realized the danger of his antibiotic-dependent methods and decided to start over. He now raises pigs the natural way — free-roaming and without drugs — for his company, Heritage Acres Food. Today, buyers of his pork include Chipotle and Costco. He also leads a thriving pork cooperative, showing dozens of producers that they, too, can make similar conversions at a profit.

And Mr. Kremer is hardly alone. In Denmark, one of the world’s largest pork exporters, industrial farmers have cut overall antibiotic use by more than 40 percent while increasing production. The European Union, with its additional 27 member nations, also prohibits the misuse of growth-promoting antibiotics.

While the F.D.A. continues to drag its feet, it’s time for cooks and consumers to step in. We can play an important, proactive role in protecting against superbugs by changing the marketplace. Insist that your supermarkets stock meat and poultry raised without antibiotics. Demand that your restaurants do the same. An increasing number of major food companies, including Whole Foods, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, Applegate and Panera Bread, have gotten on board, proof that as we vote with our wallets and our roasting pans, producers will rise to meet us.

Food should be delicious. It should also be good for you. We shouldn’t have to worry that we’re endangering our health each time we put a morsel of meat into our mouths. Rather than protecting the unsafe practices of the country’s animal agriculture industry, it’s time the F.D.A. followed its mandate and put America’s health first.

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