Pig

The use of antibiotics in farm animals is massive. As of 2009, the USDA reports nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics—80 percent of our nation’s supply—are given to animals as preventative measures to ward off illness and infections that frequent the dense and dirty concentrated animal feed operations home to tens of millions of animals, leading to antibiotic resistant bacteria entering the food supply and rendering common treatment measures ineffective.

The FDA recently declined to regulate several antibiotics widely used in livestock and humans, including penicillin and tetracycline, after more than 30 years of the known risks of resistance associated with excessive use on livestock, and gave power instead to the industry to self-regulate its use of the drugs. A disappointing decision, the FDA then announced that it would enforce restrictions on cephalosporin, a less commonly used class of antibiotics that (unlike penicillin and tetracycline) actually require veterinary prescriptions.

Food writer Mark Bittman of the New York Times wrote of the decision, “To recap, the F.D.A. will partially ban a disappearing family of antibiotics that is relatively non-existent in animal agriculture and that the meat industry does not rely upon. Not exactly a bold move. Kind of like protecting less than 1 percent of the acreage in the rainforest or 1 percent of the fish in the sea while allowing producers to devastate the rest, and patting yourself on the back to boot.” And Mother Jones contributor Tom Philpott echoes the sentiment, “[T]he FDA has courageously restricted the use of a drug the industry barely uses and is already phasing out, and it is cravenly looking the other way as the industry increasingly leans on other antibiotics as a crutch to prop up a reckless production system.”

Still, advocates see the cephalosporin restriction as an albeit small but potent victory, hoping the new ruling will lead the way to tighter regulations on the use of more widespread antibiotics in livestock and encourage integration of effective alternative practices that reduce the need for the drugs in the first place, like organically raised, smaller animal herds and less crowded battery cages and feed lots that could help to prevent the spread of disease.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Lithfin