A week ago, a federal court ordered the Food and Drug Administration to follow through with a 35-year-old proposal to restrict antibiotic use in livestock. Yet, the ruling is unlikely to change the widespread use of antibiotics in feedlots across America as it only prohibits use for growth enhancement and not for disease prevention. How did we come to this distinction, and why does it matter?
In the 1950s, a study showed low dosages of antibiotics enhanced weight gain in farm animals. The reasoning was unknown, but it was thought that animals conserved energy that would otherwise be spent on fighting off infections, which was spent on growth instead. This resulted in feedlots giving enormous amounts of antibiotics to animal, not for disease prevention, but to enhance weight and appetite.
Today, 80% of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are used on livestock and not on humans. Meanwhile, antibiotic-resistance in bacteria is a rising concern, selected as the theme for the World Health Organization’s 2011 World Health Day. Fatal E. coli and salmonella outbreaks of the recent past are frightening reminders of this. Many will fight to have the meat industry cut down on antibiotic use with this new ruling, but the common use of commercial feedlots — characterized by overcrowding and poor sanitation and waste management — make continued antibiotic use under the label of disease prevention the likely outcome.
If regulation cannot persuade feedlots to curb its use of antibiotics, consumers should. By being aware of the repercussions our choice of food has on our health and environment, consumers can effect change on our national meat supply. Chipotle is an example of this, sourcing only from antibiotic-free and sustainably raised meats. The restaurant's “Back To The Start” campaign has helped shed light on the problems of commercial feedlots (and has done so in an artistic and adorable way). As end-consumers, we shouldn’t lose sight of the impact our eating habits have on our world, even down to the microbes.