Sick CowEarlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration issued a draft document(pdf) calling for an end to the common practice of pumping farm animals full of unnecessary antibiotics. USA Today quoted Joshua Sharfstein, the FDA’s principal deputy commissioner of food and drugs, who said, “Because bacteria are so good at becoming resistant to antimicrobial drugs, it is essential that such drugs be used judiciously to delay the development of resistance.”

Essentially, overuse of antibiotics in animal feed could lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria dangerous to humans. We can already see this happening. As Time‘s environmental blogger Bryan Walsh points out, “an estimated 100,000 people a year now die from hospital-acquired bacterial infections that can no longer be treated with most antibiotics, thanks to resistance.”

In addition to trying to compensate for overcrowded, unsanitary conditions in factory farms, one of the main reasons farm animals are given regular doses of antibiotics is that they are fed unhealthy diets to make them grow bigger faster. Cows, for example, are natural ruminants, i.e. they eat grass. However, it is far cheaper and quicker to fatten up a cow on a diet of corn. Alas, ruminants can’t digest corn. As Michael Pollan describes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, this unnatural diet can “in some cases kill the animal, but usually just makes them sick.” How sick? Everything from pneumonia to feedlot polio to severe liver disease. Pollan notes that between “15 percent and 30 percent of feedlot cows are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers.”

If cows were allowed to graze and eat grass, than massive amounts of antibiotics wouldn’t be necessary. But then Americans wouldn’t have access to the cheap slabs of beef they have come to see as their birthright.

The amount of antibiotics consumed by the animal agriculture industry is staggering. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70 percent of antibiotics and related drugs used in the United States are given to livestock for nontherapeutic uses. “When all agricultural uses are considered, the share could be as high as 84 percent.” Bear in mind that these estimates date back to 2001. It is most likely much higher today.

The livestock industry would have us believe that they simply must use doses of antibiotics on the farm animals who they themselves made sick in the first place. Like much else from the mouths of Big Ag, this is a lie. Since 2006, the European Union has tightly regulated the use of antibiotics on livestock, and as far as I know, meat remains available throughout the E.U.

The FDA’s call to end the indiscriminate use of antibiotics on livestock is worthwhile, but they are too timid. They still seem to think the animal agriculture industry will voluntarily adopt sounder policies. I’m not holding my breath. To quote Steven Roach of Keeping Antibiotics Working, “They’re still trying to get the industry to make the problem go away voluntarily … The problem is the companies aren’t going to voluntarily give up their profits.”

Photo Credit: Farm Sanctuary