Will the Meat Industry Have to Kick Its Antibiotics Habit?

Senator Dianne Feinstein introduces a bill that would curb the use of antibiotics in the meat industry.

The Preventing Antibiotic Resistant Act of 2013

This herd might not be munching on so many antibiotics if Congress passes the Preventing Antibiotic Resistant Act. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Just months after introducing a bill that would require the labeling of products containing genetically modified ingredients, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has put forth another important piece of food legislation: The Preventing Antibiotic Resistant Act of 2013. The bill, introduced last week and cosponsored by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Jack Reed (D-RI), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), would limit the use of antibiotics important to human health in the livestock industry.

The act allows for therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock, with dosages geared toward treating a specific disease or infection. But according to the language of the bill, “Such term does not include the continued use of such an anti-microbial in the animal after the disease or infection is resolved.” This means the standard industry practices of adding antibiotics to feed for prophylactic and growth-promoting purposes would no longer be allowed.

In light of rising concerns over salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli 0157:H7, listeria and other dangerous bacteria appearing with disturbing regularity in our food supply, and the rising instances of antibiotic-resistant diseases in humans, this is a significant policy development. But the very language of the bill implicitly asks what took so long. “In 1977, the Food and Drug Administration concluded that feeding livestock low doses of antibiotics used in human disease treatment could promote the development of antibiotic-resistance in bacteria,” reads the first paragraph in the Findings section of the bill. “However, the Food and Drug Administration did not act in response to these findings, despite laws requiting the agency to do so.”

In the document the FDA published in ’77, which mentions that the Agency’s concerns over the issue date back to the mid-1960s, it’s reported that the amount of antibiotics used in animal feed jumped from 1.20 million pounds in 1960 to 7.3 million in 1970. And in the years since? In 2011, the meat industry purchased 20 million pounds of antibiotics—close to four times as much used to treat human illnesses.

So Feinstein, following her colleague Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY), who introduced a bill geared at curbing antibiotic use in the House earlier this year, is essentially working to legislate against lost time. And judging by the numbers, we’re already paying for the delay.

“In 2009, Cook County Hospital and the Alliance for Prudent Use of Antibiotics estimated that the total health care cost of antibiotic resistant infections in the United States was between $16,600,000,000 and $26,000,000,000 annually,” according to the bill.

The meat lobby is already working to defeat the legislation. Dr. Mike Apley, a vet who represents the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, insisted that antibiotic use was necessary, judicious and well-regulated. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions and outright misrepresentations about why and how antibiotics are used in the cattle industry,” Dr. Apley said. “The truth is, cattle producers and veterinarians utilize many tools including vaccines, herd health management, genetics and animal nutrition to continue producing the world’s safest beef.”

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