Since World War II, the antibiotic has been modern medicine’s savior, allowing doctors to treat and stop the spread of infections. Antibiotics are given to both people and animals; almost 80% of the US’s antibiotics are used to treat chickens, pigs, cows and other livestock that people consume. However, meat manufacturers and farmers are not forced to divulge details about their use of antibiotics – i.e. what drugs are administered in which animals, and in what amounts.
Though antibiotics are used to treat infections, people often suffer from antibiotic-resistant diseases; and many believe that there is a link between these resistant infections and regular antibiotic-use in animals. Meat manufacturers’ and farmers’ lack of documentation is a direct hindrance on identifying this relationship, both of whom maintain that there is no link; but both humans and animals play a part in the escalation of antibiotic-resistant infections.
Unsystematic use of antibiotics is a large problem, causing antibiotics to become less effective in both humans and animals. Meat manufacturers and farmers indiscriminately use antibiotics in order to encourage growth in livestock – some drugs encouraging growth, while others stunting it. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has attempted numerous times to standardize the use of antibiotics in livestock; but it is hard to systematize and regulate antibiotic use in animals because there is nothing comparable to a national system that tracks animal healthcare, as there is for people.
The FDA continues its efforts to restrain drugs that are sold over-the-counter to meat manufacturers and farmers. Recently, the agency recommended banning specific antibiotics that are used to fuel animal growth, while also forcing meat manufacturers and farmers to acquire prescriptions for certain animal antibiotics.
Responsibility for regulating these issues is splintered among multiple agencies, which has become another obstacle. The FDA polices drugs, while the US Department of Agriculture’s scope is agriculture; the Centers for Disease Control also has a part.
Some meat manufacturers and farmers, such as poultry feed mills, keep meticulous records of antibiotic usage, and the FDA has the authority to review these records at anytime. But while the agency has access to these records, the data cannot be gathered to publish. Other data, most of which has been collected on antibiotic-resistant bacteria transmitted in meat, is so small that it is fairly unreliable – no real conjectures can be drawn from such numbers.
There is no way to confirm that meat manufacturers are complying with existing rules on antibiotic usage. In any attempt, regulators have to look for misused or prohibited drugs in meat from slaughterhouses and shopping markets, rather than regulating directly from the source – farms.
Judging from the conflicting viewpoints of consumers who want safer and cheaper meat, and regulators who want to protect public health, what can animal farmers do to satisfy consumers and regulators, while also guarding against rising costs? Perhaps there is a solution in better communication between healthcare providers for animal health and human health, and drug manufacturers and regulators.
Conceived, Developed and Written by Dr. Subodh Das and Tara Mahadevan
November 28, 2012
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