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David Wallinga, M.D. Headshot

Feeding Animals Antibiotics: Not Helping U.S. Meat Export

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At a 2010 Congressional briefing sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter, I warned the continued and routine overuse of antibiotics in U.S. meat production could be shooting the global competitiveness of that industry in the foot.

Data finally released last month by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do little to allay those fears, while confirming the findings of a decade-old report from the Union of Concerned Scientists: More than 70 percent (74 percent, in fact) of all U.S. antibiotics are being used in food-producing animals. Most of our "medically important" antibiotics, like penicillins, tetracyclines and erythromycins, are used in animals, not people. And, nearly all of these are routine uses in feed for animals that are not clinically sick. Rather than to treat disease, these antibiotics are used for growth promotion or to avert sickness in animals that are stressed from the confined conditions in which they are raised.

There is no scientific basis for doubting the public health import of allowing antibiotics to be used in this way. The Center for Disease Control Director, the leadership of the Food and Drug Administration, the leadership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the medical literature all conclude that agricultural overuse of antibiotics in feed is worsening the scourge of antibiotic resistance affecting the human and animal population.

The trade issue we raised in our presentation last March was that other countries, particularly in Europe, are also increasingly pointing to these feed antibiotics as worrisome and grounds for restricting imports of U.S. meat products.

In fact, a December 6, 2010 Congressional Research Service report itself confirms what we were saying six months earlier: "Although antibiotic use in animals has not been a significant factor affecting U.S. trade in meat products to date, evidence suggests that country restrictions on the use of these drugs could become an issue in the future and could affect U.S. export markets for livestock and poultry products."

What seems clear is that U.S. meat production is at a crossroads. Either we can try and cling to the way things have always been done, despite evidence that it is harming our citizens as well as putting our agriculture economy at risk. Or, we can all work together to make future meat production healthier, using fewer antibiotics, and become more competitive in a marketplace where people and countries care more and more about how their food is produced.