Used to prevent illness in their close-quartered environments as well as boost growth rates, antibiotics are widespread in the food animal industry. Many of the antibiotics are the same kind that are administered to humans, and for this reason medical and regulatory authorities have cautioned farmers against their overuse since the 1970s. Experts feared the practice would lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
In recent years, that fear has proven well-founded. The World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed antibiotic-resistant bacteria an “increasingly serious threat to public health that requires action across all government sectors and society.” In 2012, about 450,000 new cases of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis were reported in 92 countries, requiring treatment courses “much longer and less effective than those for non-resistant TB.”
The FDA lays a good portion of the blame at the feet of farmers and ranchers whose poultry, beef and pork are injected with antibiotics that are then passed onto the humans who regularly consume them.
Over 70 percent of drugs in the U.S. are administered to animals, and at rates six times that of Denmark or Norway. According to the FDA’s recent report, that amount was on the rise from 2009 to 2012, with the number of antibiotics sold in that time period increasing by 16 percent.
The report states that most of these drugs were sold over the counter as feed and water additives.
To crack down on this practice, in 2012 the FDA restricted the use of cephalosporins on cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys. This class of medicines are used in brands like Cefzil and Keflex to treat pneumonia, strep throat and skin and urinary tract infections.
That alone was not enough, however. In 2013, the FDA also called for a voluntary three-year phase-out of growth-enhancing antibiotics.
The FDA made the restriction voluntary to speed up the process of the phase-out, but farmers are under no obligation to comply. For this reason, states like California are crafting their own legislation to ban the use of antibiotics in livestock, except in cases of medical necessity.