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By Candice Bernd
January 30, 2012
Caption : The federal agency banned the cephalosporin family of antibiotics at factory farms. But with growing bacterial resistance and the agencies’ lack of regulatory teeth on other major forms of antibiotics, it’s still just a cop-out.     

A common reason vegetarians and vegans cite in defense of their diet is the use of antibiotics and hormones often used to promote animals’ growth, which affect the meat product that gets churned out of industrial factory farms.

Many Americans find ingesting this meat simply, well, icky.

This month, the Federal Drug Administration banned at least one type of antibiotic, cephalosporins, from use on animals intended for consumption. While the move remains significant for the administration, it’s a drop in the bucket in helping the severity of antibiotics use in the meat many of us still eat.

With bacterial resistance, many viral strains simply flourish as they become invincible to the drugs being pumped into factory-farmed animals—and those strains can affect humans. The FDA has taken a significant step toward clamping down on the risky game being played by the meat industry.

But it’s not enough, considering the agency reneged on a promise to regulate penicillin and tetracyclines—two antibiotics used more heavily and becoming less effective with bacterial resistance. The agency had initially vowed to regulate these antibiotics in the 1970s, so the latest to move to regulate cephalosporins is essentially two steps backward and one step forward on their promise.

Industrial Contained Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFO’s, inject healthy animals with small amounts of antibiotics over their lifetimes, primarily to spurt their growth to produce more meat more quickly, and thus increase profits. Non-diseased factory-farmed animals easily build up resistance to the small amounts of antibiotics introduced into their systems, creating ‘super bugs’ such as MRSA, or drug-resistance staph infection.

MRSA causes about 19,000 human deaths each year in the United States and about 7 million doctor and emergency-room visits.

Recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, including a form of resistant Salmonella, have also been linked back to meat products dosed with intense amounts of antibiotics. When the meat is consumed by humans, the antibiotics also make the human immune system susceptible to infections that do not respond as well to treatment.

The FDA has left the industry the power to decide whether to use penicillins and tetracyclines and when to make voluntary changes to their standard practices used on factory-farmed animals after 30 years of considering restrictions that would enforce limitations on the drugs.

Meanwhile, meat industry spokespeople are not backing off from antibiotic use, claiming the drugs can still be used safely and ethically to benefit their businesses.

The FDA’s recent action around cephalosporins can be applauded as a step in the right direction, but don’t give the agency too much credit.

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