30 Pound Turkeys, 30 Million Pounds of Antibiotics

Since 1960, the weight of an average live domesticated turkey has nearly doubled from around 15 to 30 pounds.   And current estimates are that 30 million pounds of antibiotics are used in livestock production per year (which represents 80 percent of the total volume of antibiotics sold in the United States for any purpose).  These two facts are related.

The use of antibiotics in livestock is often not for the purpose of curing disease, but rather for the purpose of growth promotion—a practice that has arisen with the intensification of livestock farming.  Although the mechanism underpinning their action is unclear, it is believed that the administration of antibiotics at non-therapeutic doses suppresses sensitive populations of bacteria in the intestines, helping animals digest their food more efficiently.

This non-therapeutic use of antibiotics continues despite clear evidence that the overuse of important antibiotics for humans in the livestock industry spreads dangerous antibiotic resistance.   For example, the CDC recently released a report finding that 2 million people in the U.S. acquire serious antibiotic resistant bacterial infections every year, that at least 23,000 people die of those infections, and that many more die from conditions caused by complications from those infections. The report identified agricultural use of antibiotics as a significant cause of the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

While the FDA has voluntary guidelines in the pipeline that would stop the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, they would continue to allow their use for disease control.  And although the FDA issued a draft version of its policy in April 2012 and the comment period closed over a year ago, it has still not taken action to finalize the guidelines.  The delay recently caused two former FDA commissioners – David Kessler and Donald Kennedy – to write a letter to OMB Director urging action.

Furthermore, and even more troubling, a recent report from a Pew Charitable Trusts commission of scientists working through the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health explains that the definition of “disease control” in the FDA’s guidelines might be loose enough to permit no practical change in the use of antibiotics for purposes of growth promotion.

So when you see 30 pound turkeys lining the shelves of grocery stores this week, you should think twice about how they got so big.

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