Animal Antibiotics: FDA Rules Criticized As Weak As McDonald's

Ben Elgin and Andrew Martin | Bloomberg Businessweek | January 2, 2014

A delegation of public-health advocates filed into the suburban Chicago headquarters of McDonald’s (MCD) last January to deliver a tough message: A decade after the fast-food giant’s groundbreaking promise to reduce medically important antibiotics fed to the animals it buys, the policy had glaring loopholes and was having a questionable impact.

Many farmers and food companies were using antibiotics not for their medicinal properties, but because they also make animals grow faster or become heavier. The company’s plan was supposed to address concerns that persistent use of such drugs on animals might increase the resistance of dangerous microbes to antibiotics. Such bugs could then be transmitted to humans who ate the meat. But the McDonald’s policy was easy to sidestep, the health advocates told company officials: Livestock producers or farmers could continue to give millions of healthy animals antibiotics for the purpose of preventing disease—an exception the company’s program allowed. “It’s time for McDonald’s to update their policy,” Steven Roach of the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition recalls telling company officials.

So far, McDonald’s hasn’t announced any major changes to its animal antibiotics rules, but a much more important player in the food world has: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The agency in December announced its own industry guidance to combat the growing use of medically important antibiotics in farm animals, and its plan strongly resembles the 2003 McDonald’s program. Both prohibit the drugs from being used to speed animals’ growth and call for veterinarians to oversee the dispensing of antibiotics for approved uses, such as disease prevention and treatment. And both would allow livestock raisers to continue giving antibiotics to healthy animals. [...]