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Antibiotic-Free Meat: Is the FDA Finally Catching Up to the American Consumer?

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Is antibiotic-free meat coming soon to every supermarket in America? Not quite yet, but a statement made yesterday by a high-ranking Food and Drug Administration official supporting the discontinuation of antibiotics to promote livestock growth offers a glimmer of hope that the days of heavy antibiotic use in livestock may be coming to an end. In the statement, prepared for a House hearing regarding Rep. Louise Slaughter's (D-NY) bill to limit the unnecessary use of antibiotics in the nation's food supply (Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) has introduced a companion bill in the Senate), Principal Deputy FDA Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein said that "purposes other than for the advancement of animal or human health should not be considered judicious use," and should be prohibited.

While Sharfstein's statement is encouraging, it only demonstrates that the FDA, as usual, is light-years behind the American consumer. Its controversial ruling last year that suspected endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA) is, in fact, safe, stands in stark contrast to consumer outcries for elimination of the chemical. Walmart and Toys 'R' Us no longer sell baby bottles made with BPA; legislation banning BPA has already been passed in Minnesota, Connecticut, and the city of Chicago; and even a recent joint study by researchers at Harvard University and our government's very own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention implicated baby bottles as a source of BPA exposure for infants. Yet the FDA website states, "At this time, FDA is not recommending that anyone discontinue using products that contain BPA while we continue our risk assessment process."

Broad, sweeping change (especially at the federal level) usually only occurs as a result of transformation at the grassroots level. I remember when organic beef was first offered at my local supermarket in the mid '90s: It was extremely expensive and not always available, and the average shopper wasn't even familiar with the term organic. Fast-forward 15 years, and organic products now line the shelves of Walmart, and natural foods behemoth Whole Foods has become the 10th largest food and drug store in the US.

This sea change didn't occur as a result of federal legislation; it happened because of the choices made by individual shoppers. The beauty of our system is that when government lags behind, we as American consumers still have the power to direct the marketplace by the products we buy -- or don't buy.

Yet, even if changing attitudes prompt Burger King to offer free-range Whoppers with organic artisan cheddar, there's no way to dramatically reduce the growing public health threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria if we don't pass federal legislation that will prevent agribusiness from plumping up livestock with antibiotics. (The Union of Concerned Scientists' Margaret Mellon also testified in the House hearing yesterday, explaining that antibiotic resistance is directly connected to the practice of feeding antibiotics to livestock and poultry that are not sick.)

Short of contacting your senators and representatives to urge support for the antibiotic ban (and I suggest you do so), the best solution is to do what Americans always do best: Vote with your wallet.

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