By December 2016, ranchers and farmers can no longer use antibiotics in animals for growth promotion and other production purposes. The aim is to halt the spread of antibiotic-resistant infections, which kill 23,000 Americans each year.

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On Nutrition

In June, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued guidelines designed to reduce use of antibiotics in livestock animals, one critical part of ramped-up efforts to fight the growing threat of “superbugs,” bacteria that no longer respond to treatment with common antibiotics. It’s a potentially lifesaving move for both meat-eaters and vegetarians alike.

The FDA plan, which goes into effect in December 2016, will prevent farmers and ranchers from using medically important antibiotics, or those used for both animals and humans, for growth promotion and other production purposes.

About 2 million Americans get sick — and 23,000 die — each year because of bacterial infections that antibiotics don’t cure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At a talk this month at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in Nashville, Dr. Steve Solomon, former director of the CDC’s Office of Antimicrobial Resistance, called antibiotic resistance “a critical problem that we’ve been trying to solve for decades.”

Using antibiotics when they aren’t medically necessary encourages the development and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Such bacteria from livestock can spread to humans via soil, air, water and food, generally from contamination with manure. For example, food crops may be fertilized with manure that contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Studies have found high levels of contamination with antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat sold in retail stores. In 2012, an outbreak of Salmonella that was resistant to multiple antibiotics was traced back to ground beef sold in a supermarket.

Think of recent deadly E.coli and Listeria outbreaks that have traced back to meat and cantaloupes — imagine how much more catastrophic it would be if these bacteria were immune to antibiotics. That’s not so far-fetched. Another bacteria, carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), is called ‘the nightmare bacteria’ because it’s becoming resistant to all known antibiotics.

Antibiotics have saved millions of lives since the discovery of penicillin in 1928. By 1969, they were so successful at fighting bacterial infections that the U.S. Surgeon General declared, “It is time to close the book on infectious disease.” Unfortunately, a problem with antibiotic resistance was already developing.

Solomon cited a 1955 article and editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine about the emerging problem of antibiotic resistance that said we’re not doing enough to stop it. Fast-forward 60 years, and Solomon says we’re in the middle of a crisis.

“Antibiotic resistance spreads very quickly,” he said. “We may have a post-antibiotic era every bit as bad as the pre-antibiotic era before the discovery of penicillin.”

Almost half all antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used for the production of meat, milk and eggs. Ever since farmers realized that animals on antibiotics grew faster, they began using low, continuous doses to promote growth even in healthy animals. These “sub-therapeutic” doses of antibiotics bathe the animal’s gut bacteria, killing off a lot of the normal bacteria and giving any antibiotic-resistant bacteria to multiply and thrive.

Some food producers, such as Chipotle, Whole Foods, Panera Bread and Applegate, have already taken steps to reduce antibiotic use, thanks to consumer demand. Now that the writing is on the wall, more companies — including McDonald’s, Tyson and Perdue — are making moves to reduce antibiotic use in advance of the FDA deadline.

“There is no public-health problem more complex than antibiotic resistance,” Solomon said. “It involves every living thing on the face of the earth, because every living thing on the face of the earth is part of an ecosystem with bacteria.”