Wall Street Journal; Antibiotics and the Meat Industry

10:31 PM EST NOV 3, 2014

A growing number of meat producers are selling chicken, beef or pork from animals raised without antibiotics, and sales of such products are growing rapidly. The food companies’ efforts largely are being driven by consumer pressure, rather than regulatory moves. Here’s what’s happening.

  • Why are antibiotics used in livestock production?

    In the 1940s, food producers and scientists were looking for ways to increase output as the U.S. grappled with postwar labor shortages and other challenges. Animal-health researchers discovered that animals gained weight more quickly if they received small, frequent doses of antibiotics. The Food and Drug Administration approved antibiotics’ use for growth promotion in the 1950s, and they have been widely used ever since by chicken, hog and cattle producers. The industry also uses antibiotics to prevent disease in animals that frequently are raised in close quarters.


  • Why is livestock use controversial?

    For decades, scientists have warned that the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock production can foster bacteria that develop resistance to antibiotics, which can affect human health. Such concerns have expanded in recent years as some scientific research has linked agricultural uses to some types of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. “Up to half of antibiotic use in humans and much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a report last year.


  • How would humans be affected by drugs given to animals?

    The concern is that dosing herds or flocks with antibiotics creates a vast array of living petri dishes in which bacteria can mutate to evade the drugs. These germs can be passed to humans if meat isn’t cooked fully or if traces of manure used to fertilize crops remain on produce. Some meat and drug industry groups dispute these concerns, arguing that livestock uses are unlikely to contribute significantly to resistance problems in humans, in part because many of the drugs are used only for livestock and not in human medicine.


  • What do meat eaters think?

    Consumer awareness of the issue has grown thanks to media coverage, food documentaries and books, and published surveys suggest many Americans are concerned about antibiotic use in meat production. In 2012, Consumer Reports found in a survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers that 72% were extremely or very concerned about the use of antibiotics in animal feed.


  • What is the U.S. government doing about this?

    The FDA last December took one of its farthest-reaching actions to curb antibiotic use in the meat industry, although its recommendations were voluntary. The agency asked producers of veterinary medicines to revise labels to make it effectively illegal for farmers and ranchers to administer the drugs to hasten growth. The FDA says all 26 companies that make such drugs have agreed to phase them out by December 2016. The FDA policy faces criticism from some public-health advocates. They say the rules may have little impact because they still allow putting antibiotics in feed if the purpose is disease prevention—a policy that may enable meat producers to use them widely if they have a veterinarian’s approval.