Today’s post is sponsored by Illinois Farm Families, for which I serve as a Brand Ambassador. You can read more about my role as a Brand Ambassador here.

A little over a year ago, when I returned from one of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) series of Food Dialogues,  I wrote a long post about my thoughts on the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. In that post, I discussed the debate over whether the use of antibiotics in raising animals is contributing to the increase in resistant strains of bacteria. Well, there have been some new developments on this issue since I last wrote about it, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to tackle this complicated topic once again.

Before I go any further, it’s really important that we understand what the concern is when we talk about antibiotics and food. The concern is NOT that there are antibiotics in the meat we eat or the milk we drink. Animals that are being killed for food or cows that are milked cannot have antibiotics in their systems. The FDA tests for that. (The FDA only tests for a limited number of drugs, of course, which may raise concerns for some people.)

The law requires that an animal that receives antibiotics for any reason cannot be used for meat or milked for a mandated period of time to allow the antibiotics to work through their systems. In short, we should not be ingesting antibiotics in meat or milk. Rather the issue is whether the widespread use of antibiotics in farm settings is contributing to the increase in resistant strains of bacteria that are making it more difficult for doctors to treat people who develop infections.

To understand this debate, it is equally important to understand how antibiotics have been used in farm settings. Up to this point, in conventional agriculture, antibiotics have been used both to treat sick animals and also prophylactically to prevent disease and to promote growth. Why is this done? Well, in part, when veterinarians treat animals, they tend to treat the herd.  Farmers and large-animals vets argue that is more humane and safer to prevent illness than to wait to treat a sick animal that later may infect other animals.

Preventing or controlling the spread of a disease is critical to keeping animals safe and healthy and to prevent animal suffering or unsafe conditions. These farmers and ranchers also argue that the use of antibiotics to prevent disease and to promote growth enables them to raise animals in a more efficient manner, which is both more sustainable and leads to reduced costs for the consumer. They also dispute the notion that farmers are giving drugs to their animals unnecessarily. Antibiotics are expensive and therefore farmers have every incentive to use them wisely.

Many of us know that scientists and doctors are concerned about antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, which seem to be increasing. Over two million people in the United States contract bacterial infections that are resistant to antibiotics and over 20,000 people die from these infections. The concern is that we will not have effective treatments for these bacteria going forward if something is not done to stem this tide.

There are many theories about why these resistant strains of bacteria are on the increase, such as doctors overprescribing antibiotics or patients not finishing courses of antibiotics. The concern of consumer advocacy groups like the Consumers Union is that the use (and perhaps overuse) of antibiotics in agriculture is also contributing to the increase of resistant strains of bacteria.

Farms today consume about 80% of the nation’s supply of antibiotics. That seems like a lot, but it is important to remember that not all antibiotics used on the farm are medically important to humans. Many farmers and vets  claim that there is no proven link between this prophylactic use of antibiotics in animals and the rise of so-called resistant super-bugs.

In fact, according to a recent report for the Centers for Disease Control, the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that pose the greatest risk to humans have emerged from hospitals. That being said, widespread antibiotic use in any setting increases the likelihood of resistant strains of bacteria. And of the resistant bacteria that the report lists as posing an urgent threat to human healthy, several — including salmonella — are resistant to drugs that have been used in farm settings.

Well, the FDA has now stepped into this debate and issued new guidelines that will require farmers and ranchers to phase out the use of antibiotics that are similar to drugs used on humans to promote growth and prevent disease. According to the FDA’s new plan, these antibiotics will only be used to treat sick animals. (Farmers and ranchers can continue to use drugs that have no human equivalent can still be used prophylactically.)

The FDA is also requiring prescriptions for using certain antibiotics on food animals where no such requirement existed before. Many advocates for the agriculture industry, including the Animal Health Institute, the American Meat Institute and the National Pork Producers Council have come out in support of the FDA’s move.

There are critics, though, who claim that the FDA hasn’t gone far enough. These new guidelines issued by the FDA call for voluntary compliance by the manufacturers of the drugs in question. The FDA is not mandating that the drug companies remove growth promotion claims on the labels of these antibiotics and some groups, like the National Resources Defense Council, question whether drug-makers will comply

Where does this leave us, the consumers of chicken, beef, pork and dairy products? As always, it is crucial that we be informed about how antibiotics are used in farm settings and how that impacts human health.

As consumers, our power comes through how we spend our money. If you believe that antibiotics should not be used at all on farms, and that the FDA has not gone far enough, then you might find it worthwhile to seek out organic meat and dairy products, which have never been treated with antibiotics. If you believe that it is appropriate to use antibiotics to treat sick animals, but not for preventative purposes, you will be pleased that the FDA has taken a step to curb this practice, even if it means higher prices for milk and meat.

One thing for us all to take away from this discussion, however, is that we all need to recognize that antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a serious problem. As patients and parents, we need to make sure that our own and our family’s consumption of antibiotics is responsible. And we need to demand that our hospitals and our farms use antibiotics in a responsible fashion as well. If we do not, we may one day wake up to a world where the antibiotics that we have relied upon for a century to keep us healthy are no longer able to do so.

Full disclosure time: In my role as a Brand Ambassador for Illinois Farm Families, I am being compensated for my time and writing. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

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Emily Paster

Emily Paster is a freelance writer and mother of two living in River Forest. She writes about food and parenting on her website, West of the Loop. Emily's print work appears frequently in Chicago Parent...