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What should the government do to regulate antibiotics?

Consumers Union recommends government take the following actions to end the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production.

While consumer pressure may be a more immediate catalyst for moving livestock producers away from using antibiotics, a long-term and more permanent legislative or regulatory solution would be ideal.  A bill that has been introduced in Congress, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), would prohibit the use of  medically important antibiotics in livestock production (except when treating sick animals) and thereby protect the efficacy of these drugs for human use.  In light of the public health implications of losing the efficacy of these critical drugs for people, Congress should pass this legislation immediately.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
The FDA recognized decades ago the inherent problem with the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production.  After years of inaction, the agency in early 2012 issued new guidelines for the livestock and pharmaceutical industries
requesting the “judicious use” of antibiotics in animals. However, these guidelines are merely voluntary, and while they attempt to discourage the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in animals, they continue to support the widespread
use of these drugs for disease prevention (albeit under the guidance of a veterinarian, which is a step in the right direction). The FDA states it will review these guidelines again in three years to gauge progress and take additional action if needed.  The FDA should strengthen these guidelines and establish a mandatory ban on the use of antibiotics in animal production except to treat sick animals.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Consumers who want to buy meat raised without antibiotics should be able to feel secure that the labels on those products are meaningful (i.e. that there is a definition for them) and that their truthfulness is verified by someone. Our
shoppers found several instances of labels that could mislead consumers to believe they were buying meat from animals that were not given antibiotics, when in fact that is not necessarily the case.  And although the USDA is supposed to
approve all labels on meat and poultry packages prior to use, our shoppers and researchers found several unapproved labels in the marketplace.

The USDA should improve its supervision of labels related to antibiotic use in several ways:

  • The USDA/FSIS currently conducts its reviews behind closed doors and does not disclose what specific labels it has authorized or which companies have been authorized to use them. The USDA should post on its website all authorized labels, the products they are authorized for, and the label definition, to help consumers understand the labels.
  • The USDA should establish one approved phrasing for such labels, such as “no antibiotics ever used,” and restrict all labels to that usage. That would significantly reduce consumer confusion.
  • The USDA should establish a formal standard defining this label (the USDA indicated to Consumer Reports that it does not allow use of ionophores and prohibits antibiotic use at any stage of an animal’s life, if meat is to carry a “no antibiotics” label, but the full definition is not published on its website). This would help both companies and consumers understand label requirements and facilitate better enforcement.
  • The USDA should check up on “no antibiotics” labels to verify their truthfulness, and take action against labels that do not conform to its established definitions.