Voluntarily reducing farm use of antibiotics is positive step, but more is needed
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This past year, numerous food chains and food suppliers announced plans to purchase chicken raised without the use of antibiotics. Companies pledging in 2015 to purchase antibiotic-free chicken include Applegate, Chipotle, Elevation Burger, Panera, McDonald's and Costco.

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The move by these major poultry purchasers could have an extremely important effect on poultry-raising practices. Costco reports that it sells 80 million rotisserie chickens a year. And that's just prepared chicken. Costco also sells large volume of raw poultry products.

Major corporations using their market power to influence better agricultural practice is good news. Voluntary reduction of antibiotic use by large purchasers is a good first step in solving the problem of reducing antibiotic resistant bacteria, but it is only a first step.

Voluntary reduction promises a change in farming practices, but carries no penalties for farms that fail to do so. Nor does it protect against farms that misrepresent their practices to both the corporate purchasers and the customers who rely on corporate guarantees of antibiotic-free poultry.

While voluntary purchasing practices will help reduce agricultural dependence on antibiotics by reducing the market for poultry raised on feed containing antibiotics, government oversight is still needed to ensure that the promised voluntary standards (whether through private promises or adherence to U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] voluntary guidelines) are met.

Eighty percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are used in meat and poultry farms. Half of the U.S. poultry sold contain antibiotic resistant bacteria. A recent study published by the American Public Health Association found that "resistant bacteria are transmitted to humans through direct contact with animals, by exposure to animal manure, through consumption of undercooked meat or surfaces meat has touched."

Market pressure from large companies to reduce the agricultural use of antibiotics to promote growth (rather than treat sick animals) is an important step in the road to reducing antibiotic resistance, but more is needed to preserve the effectiveness of these vital medications. FDA voluntary guidelines should be made mandatory and enforceable regulations.

Geltman is the author of 17 books on environmental and natural resource policy. She is an associate professor and program director for Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Public Health and the Urban School of Public Health at Hunter College. She also serves as the secretary of the Environment Section of the American Public Health Association.