For decades, farmers have been pumping pigs, cows, chicken, and turkeys full of antibiotics to make them grow bigger and fatter and produce more meat or milk. Such widespread overuse of these drugs, initially developed to combat disease, has created antibiotic-resistant superbacteria that pose serious threats to animal and human health. More than 2 million Americans contract antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and about 23,000 die from them, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control report.
Finally, the federal government has said enough.
The Food and Drug Administration just enacted a major new policy that discourages the use of antibiotics in healthy animals' food and water in order to plump them up. They'll still be able to treat sick livestock with antibiotics, but first they'll have to get a prescription from a veterinarian, rather than buying the drugs from feed stores at their discretion.
While health experts are cheering FDA's decision, many don't think it goes far enough. The FDA says it'll take at least three years to phase in these rule changes, for one, and there are loopholes. "The government still needs to address the use of antibiotics routinely fed to animals just because they live in overcrowded conditions that are conducive to the spread of disease," says Gail Hansen, senior officer of the Pew Charitable Trust's Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming. "Antibiotics are not the solution to that problem; better animal husbandry and hygiene are."
So what can you do now? "Buy meat and dairy products from farmers who use antibiotics responsibly," says Hansen. Even though most of us don't usually buy food directly from farmers, more restaurants, natural food stores, and co-ops do, so ask about their policies on using and stocking from-the-farm products. If you buy steaks and chops from a local butcher shop, ask the owner where he or she sources the meat. If the products come from a farm that uses antibiotics or isn't transparent about its practices, then maybe it's time to find a new shop.
When buying meat from the supermarket, read labels carefully and don't buy into generic claims such as "natural" or "free range," which only mean that animals are free to forage, not that they haven't been pumped full of antibiotics. Do look for these labels: No Antibiotics Administered, Raised without Antibiotics, and USDA Organic. Each of these ensures that meat – as well as dairy products – comes from animals that weren't given antibiotics. "Additionally, [the label] Animal Welfare Approved is a private certification that restricts inappropriate use of antibiotics," Hansen says. "The Environmental Working Group also has great information on meat labels." Check out EWG's online resource to learn the meaning behind every meat label out there.