Public outcry against irresponsible use of antibiotics in the livestock industry continues to mount as the evidence about its impact on antibiotic resistance accumulates. In response, Perdue recently announced that it was reducing the use of antibiotics in its poultry operations. Perdue’s announcement comes on the heels of several recent developments in the ongoing overuse of these drugs by poultry producers, including a 2012 Food and Drug Administration ban on injecting cephalosporins into chicken eggs and the Agency’s recent announcement of its voluntary strategy to curtail the industry’s use of growth-enhancing antimicrobials.
Not only are the regulatory authorities finally making some moves to counter the abuse, but public sentiment against the use of antibiotics is also reaching a fever pitch. A Consumer Reports food label survey just issued shows that 78 percent of consumers think that reducing antibiotic use in food is “important” or “very important.”
The fact is, people are starting to demand better food choices while pointing out the dire human consequences of irresponsible industry actions, and regulators are being forced to respond; industry’s marketing people are also seeing the writing on the wall. It’s no coincidence that Perdue’s announcement comes just as the company is making a move to become the dominant player in the organic chicken market.
A Perdue spokesperson stated that the company’s voluntary reduction in the use of antibiotics shows that the industry doesn’t need to be regulated to change its ways. If only that were true. One of the big problems with industry’s use of antibiotics is that the FDA does a poor job of tracking the use of these drugs in U.S. meat producers. There are very weak reporting requirements and industry’s admissions of antibiotic use are purposefully murky and undefined. Even Perdue’s official statement leaves it unclear how antibiotics will continue to be used to “treat and control illness in sick flocks.”
But where Perdue’s “we don’t really need to be regulated” argument really falls apart is when you look at many of the other problems associated with its industrialized meat production system. For example, Perdue’s hundreds of Delmarva factory farms continue to be a significant source of water pollution to a dying Chesapeake Bay, where agriculture remains the largest source of nitrogen and phosphorus discharges. And, while nutrient-caused dead zones continue their annual summer haunt of the Bay, Perdue has spent decades refusing to take any responsibility for the mountains of manure from their own chickens that pile up on the Eastern Shore each spring. The Bay, and the many people who rely on it, simply cannot wait until the company decides that it’s marketable to clean up after itself.
Likewise, with the antibiotic issue, voluntary simply doesn’t cut it; antibiotic abuse by industry is a current crisis and our public health and safety cannot afford to wait until there’s an industry-wide decision to do the right thing. So while we should be throwing Perdue a chicken bone for its marketing decision to reduce antibiotic use, the most important part of Perdue’s announcement is that it shows what the industry has been claiming for years – that it can’t produce meat without the abuse of antibiotics – is false. It’s past time for the FDA to do what we all know is possible, and that is to force the meat industry to eliminate its use of harmful antibiotics though protective, non-voluntary regulation.