In a ruling handed down Thursday by a federal court in New York, the FDA will be required to begin pulling approvals for antimicrobial drugs currently employed in the production of food animals until their manufacturers can prove them safe for the public.
In dispute are penicillin and tetracyclines, which are used widely in America’s food animal production system as a non-therapeutic growth stimulator. These two antibiotics are constantly given to food animals in their water thereby increasing the efficiency of the feed. The producers who employ these antibiotics also provide for their animals less than ideal living conditions, which lead to increased illness among the herds. Without this constant stream of antibiotics, food producers would be forced to provide better living conditions for their animals.
Advocacy and public health groups have long been concerned with the effects such practices could have on public health, and have linked the overuse of these antibiotics in animal husbandry to an increased rise in antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains. It has also been well documented that these resistant strains can be transferred from animal to animal and from animal to person. This can cause infections which are difficult to treat due to the reduction of the effectiveness of antibacterial therapies in both humans and animals.
On the other side of the aisle, producers claim that the health effects are negligible while the increased cost to them could cripple their operations. Cases such as the so-called “Danish Experiment” show this is simply not true.
In 1999, the Danish Government banned the use of growth promoting antimicrobials. Since then, several epidemiological studies, most notably from the World Health Organization (WHO), found no serious negative side effects from the the elimination of such products in animal husbandry. Instead, they found a significant decrease in resistant bacterial strains, thus reducing the threat of resistance in people and improving overall health to the animals and the population.
Of course, without antibiotics as a growth enhancer the producer must use more feed and pass that cost onto the consumer. The average cost per year: just $15 a household. With one study estimating the health costs of treating drug resistant strains of bacteria at $26 billion a year, I would say the benefits to public health well justify $1.25 per month more.
It has been said again and again that antibiotics are miracle drugs. I couldn’t agree more. They have saved countless lives since their discovery. It is well documented, however, that their over-prescription leads to serious threats to public health through decreased effectiveness. If the animals we eat are consuming these antibiotics every day it is sure to produce negative side effects for the treatment of illness in both the animals and the people who eat them.
This latest ruling forcing the FDA to reconsider its policies regarding the use of antibiotics as growth promoters is a substantial gain in the safety of the food we eat and could have significant impacts on the public health systems in America and the health of the public at large. Though this latest decision is not a firm ban on non-therapeutic antibiotics as a growth promoter, the burden of proof has fallen to the drug manufacturers to show that the use of these drugs in this way is not harmful to public health. These substances have already been banned widely across the world to little negative impact on the production of food animals and great benefits to the public sector.
The drug companies have had free reign for many decades to market their product to food producers a quick fix, without being responsible for the damage it has caused. If we have the sense of rest of the developed world, where non-therapeutic use has been banned for some time, we will end the unregulated use of these wonder drugs and reserve their abilities for when they are truly needed.