You Should Know

July 2017 Issue

Update: Antibiotics in Farm Animals

The use of antibiotics in animals raised for food—primarily chickens, pigs and cows—is a common practice, as more than three-quarters of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used for these animals. Farm animals outnumber humans in the U.S. by a whopping 30 to 1 margin, and most are raised in extremely close quarters in industrial-sized “factory farms.” Often antibiotics are used not just to treat sick animals, but to promote growth and prevent diseases that could potentially spread quickly when many animals are housed together. This consistent, wide-scale use is under closer scrutiny, as concern grows over so-called “superbugs” that are resistant to antibiotics and other treatments. There is not complete agreement on the link between antibiotic use in animals and resistance in humans, but a number of organizations, such as the World Health Organization, American Public Health Association, and American Medical Association, have passed resolutions regarding the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animals raised for food.

Guideline Update

In 1996, the Animal Drug Availability Act was enacted by Congress, creating a new regulatory category for drugs used with animals called the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD). In December 2013, the FDA updated their Guidance for Industry with the VFD outlining a ‘judicious use strategy’, which has a goal of phasing out the use of medically important antibiotics (those used for treating human infections) in food animals for growth purposes. This new directive requires a veterinarian’s oversight because approved antimicrobials changed from over-the-counter to requiring a prescription. In January 2017, the FDA reported that all affected drugs have now aligned with these recommendations.

What this Means to You

Regulating the use of antibiotics in animals is an important step in reducing resistance. However, the focus with the VFD implementation is on re-categorization of drugs and we don’t know if these new regulations will curb overall use, because the same antibiotics may be used in animals, sick or not, as long as it is done under the supervision of a veterinarian. There has been a recent reduction in antibiotic residues in meat, though this has more to do with timing (animals are now taken off of antibiotics sooner) than it does with overall use.

If you are concerned about antibiotic overuse in animals, you may prefer to buy organic meat, where antibiotics are prohibited, or limit your consumption of animal foods. There are a few ways you can stay active on this important food issue: Inquire about the farm-to-table path of your food, and keep up-to-date through organizations such as the Consumers Union and Natural Resources Defense Council.