For 60 years, US factory farms have included broad-spectrum antibiotics in the feed for livestock. It is said to promote growth. It also promotes antibiotic resistance. Fully 80% (30 million pounds) of the antibiotics used in the US are fed to animals who provide our meat and dairy products. In 1977, FDA announced it planned to withdraw approval for some antibiotic use in animal feed. It never did, till 2005, when fluoroquinolones, like Cipro and Baytril, were to be stopped. But there was no enforcement.
Cheap production methods introduce bacterial contamination to meat. See this Bloomberg report on pork production, and the effects of FDA's reduced inspections. Scary.
Back in 2010, FDA asked farmers to reduce all antibiotic use routinely in animal feed. The practice had been banned in the European Union in 2006. But the practice continued in the US, in the absence of an outright ban.
Last year, after the 2005 FDA ruling on antibiotic fluoroquinolones failed to stop their use, FDA issued a stronger ban on the use of fluroquinolones in animal feed, as antibiotics resistance develops rapidly to this class of drugs.
Last April, the Environmental Working Group issued a report, Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets, which FDA rapidly rebutted. (It seems the gov't PR folks can always get out a quick rebuttal to anything.) But now FDA has made an about-face.
In a surprise decision, FDA has taken the bold step of telling farmers to phase out the use of all indiscriminate antibiotics (those used to promote growth, not those used to treat specific infections) by 2017. Farmers will need a prescription from a veterinarian to give animals antibiotics. The change is being effected by changing the labels on the antibiotics: their use to promote growth in livestock will no longer be FDA-approved. This is a method available to FDA, with adequate enforcement tools, that could stop antibiotics' routine use.
Some claim farmers will still be able to use the drugs for "disease prevention." How FDA enforces this change will determine its scope.
Kudos to FDA for the very important decision (finally). Let's hope this time it sticks. Banning antibiotics in feed may increase the price of food a little. But the quality of the US food supply, especially its factory-farmed meat, is currently so poor, that efforts to turn around the degradation of the food supply, and begin improving the quality of our foodstuffs are really, really important. Hopefully, FDA will next ban the use of arsenic and prozac in chickens. And move on from there to secure a safe US food supply.