There are major changes ahead for food labeling, and it isn’t just for GMOs. The latest push is for antibiotic-free meat, with consumers citing concerns about overuse. Chick-fil-A has pledged that their chicken will be antibiotic free within five years, and both Purdue and Tyson have already released drug-free versions of the meat. So why the new push?
With almost 80 percent of all antibiotics in the United States being used for meat production, large-scale animal farms are huge contributors to the problem of antibiotics losing their effectiveness. While farmers do use antibiotics to treat disease in animals, they also use the medicine to prevent disease and, more controversially, to promote growth. The consistent overdosing of antibiotics to grow bigger livestock is a big part of the problem, with 685 current antibiotics approved for the use in animal feed.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) are now taking up the cause of battling the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, which one expert has described as an “apocalyptic scenario.” Both bureaus have begun writing guidelines to help stop the creation of “superbugs.” The FDA is taking controversial steps to help prevent antibiotic resistance, having recently issued new guidelines for the use of antibiotics on farms. However, there is debate as it whether or not these guidelines will be effective and what other industries they should apply to.
Another major problem is the current practice of overprescribing antibiotics as a precautionary or therapeutic measure against complications and infections. In a study done on sore throats, 60 percent of adults reporting the condition to doctors were prescribed an antibiotic while only 10 percent of those patients actually had a bacterial infection. While doctors may be overly willing to prescribe medicine to avoid malpractice lawsuits, over-prescribing has started to cause the very problem it was trying to prevent. As a result, many patients are experiencing complications, longer hospital stays, and expensive medical care.
According to the latest Center for Disease Control report on the topic, almost two million people each year are infected with resistant bacteria and almost 23,000 people a year die from these infections. Infections that were easily curable in the past, such as strep throat, have become harder and harder to treat.
With a potential future of very few effective antibiotics facing us, what can policymakers do? The FDA has suggested new guidelines for antibiotic use on large scale farms. These guidelines include requiring veterinary supervision for the administering antibiotics to animals as well as requiring drug manufacturers to change their labels so farmers can no longer use antibiotics for “non-therapeutic” uses. While these might be good solutions to slow the progression of “superbugs,” they may also cause the prices of staples such as eggs and milk to rise. These guidelines are currently voluntary, but tighter rules may adversely affect the price of groceries in the future.
Sadly, the current FDA processes for having new antibiotics approved is not improving the problem either. Currently, thousands of drugs are awaiting FDA approval to go to market. These approval process experiences massive delays because of both the regulatory expense of approval and test and research costs that go into creating the drug. Today, a typical drug costs $50 million to develop, a massive barrier to entry that discourages many from creating new drugs.
A better solution to the problem of antibiotic resistance would be for the FDA to review its guidelines for the development of new drugs. While heavy antibiotic use on farms is a large part of the problem, a Johns Hopkins study claims that the improvement of large scale farm living conditions would help to prevent the diseases that heavy antibiotic dosage are already trying to prevent.
Consumer pressure has often proved to be more effective than regulation when it comes to making changes in an industry. Companies as big as Johnson & Johnson and Kellogg’s have bowed to consumer demands to eliminate hazardous chemicals and to sustainably source their supplies. With more information on our food available than ever before, consumers are empowered to buy what they think is best for themselves and their families. Market pressures are helping to make changes to the meat industry. Consumer desires should be sufficient to change the industry before more regulation is put in place that will have adverse effects.
Bernbach is a Young Voices Advocate and freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.