You Are What You Eat — Antibiotics in the Food Supply Chain

Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, a German philosopher and Young Hegelian (for you history buffs), in an essay from 1863 entitled Concerning Spiritualism and Materialism wrote: "Der Mensch ist, was er ißt. [or] man is what he eats." Feuerbach wasn't concerned with what other animals ate, but nearly 150 years later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration appears to be heeding his truism anew as it pertains to antibiotics in livestock animal feed that "man" ingests by eating their meat.

Concern over the migration of drugs used in animal feed to humans appears to have hit the FDA's radar in a 2002 report that stated "Widespread dissemination of resistance to antibiotics resulting from the selective effect of drug use in food animals may have important ramifications for both human and animal health ... Animal feeds and feed commodities may serve as vectors for the dissemination and maintenance of resistance determinants in the animal production environment and thereby in the food supply." Then in June 2010, according to 10, "The Food and Drug Administration issued a document stating that antibiotics important for human health shouldn't be used to help animals grow faster. Officials say it's the beginning of a process to halt their use in meat production ... [and goes on to say] The agency took an official position in a draft guidance paper that the livestock industry should stop feeding antibiotics to healthy hogs, chickens and cattle, commonly done because it tends to speed their growth."

And while the FDA was criticized in June for making similar statements before and not following up, that appears to have changed. This morning's WSJ reports "The Food and Drug Administration, worried about the rise of drug-resistant pathogens, stepped up its campaign Monday to discourage the use of human antibiotics in farm animals ... [and further states that the] move comes amid growing concern from the medical community that heavy use of antibiotics generally is spurring the evolution of drug-resistant pathogens." The ,Journal also claims "the FDA's guidance isn't legally binding [but] it sets the stage for the agency to take regulatory action."

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the FDA's developing vigilance in this matter is that the publicity surrounding recent reports may create public pressure that will demand a reduction in antibiotic feed additives ahead of mandated regulations. Public awareness is also likely to increase consumption of meats produced by organic producers that could provide incentives for mainstream meatpackers and their suppliers to heed the call for healthier meat from the marketplace.

William Busch

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