How the Feds Poison Our Food

EspañolConspiracy theorists might disagree, but the many destructive ramifications of excessive governance are often unintentional.

Since the 1970s, for example, the FDA has toyed with the idea that antibiotic-resistant bacteria — “superbugs” — could develop as a result of increased exposure to the same drugs. While the assessment was correct, the touted solutions applied to the problem haven’t been.

Food Safety in Name Only

Dating back to the early 20th century, federal officials have insisted that meat safety be supervised by FDA regulators. The regime has grown tighter with time — most recently with the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 — and set up an environment hostile to the challenges of poultry and beef producers, as well as the needs of consumers.

Whatever the stated goals may have been, Washington, DC’s one-size-fits-all approach eventually caused a boom in the use of antibiotic-ridden feeds, thus increasing the occurrence of superbugs.

On the drug and antibiotics production side, guidelines eventually turned into official rules, and with them an environment unkind to innovation and variety — a much larger problem. Unattainable quality requirements now suffocate innovative drug makers, and privilege a handful of companies whose antibiotics have been used in farm animal feeds for more than a decade.

By picking winners and losers, the FDA has narrowed the number of treatments available for animal feed, and created the perfect habitat for the spread of so-called superbugs. This practice is making our food supply less safe, and there is just one culprit: a government agency that purports to do the opposite.

Misguided Lobbies

Interest groups have found a unique opportunity to push the FDA to act even more on the issue. Both consumer “watchdogs” and environmental protectionists found their prayers answered when late in 2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report claiming that antibiotic-resistant bacteria were spreading fast.

The problem, according to the report, is simple: 80 percent of antibiotics prescribed to US patients are also used on animals farmed for consumption. The more the bacteria are exposed to the same antibiotics, the more resilient they become.

Under special-interest pressure, the FDA decided to stop promoting drug use and to phase out the use of antibiotics on livestock altogether. Under the new rules, introduced in 2013, drug makers are required to change their own labels, and farmers must get veterinarians to approve the use of certain antibiotics — a halt to over-the-counter sales.

These changes favored agricultural giants that enjoy economies of scale over smaller competitors. But consumer “watchdog” organizations denounced the FDA for not imposing an even greater regulatory burden on the drug industry.

One of the obvious consequences of this policy shift was greater pressure on smaller farms that now require even more money to comply with the rearrangement. Said farms had already been suffering under earlier rules, and further pressure is pushing many to extinction.

One important but largely ignored participant in the nexus of agriculture and medicine is the smaller, innovative drug producers and researchers. At this point, only major pharmaceutical complexes have the means to jump through the regulatory hoops created by the FDA. Inevitably, consumers are the ones who pay the price and face the health risks of less competitive markets.

Making an Effect the Cause

While the use of antibiotics has helped us manage a series of infections that were once deadly, absent the FDA such medicines could do a whole lot more. In the case of superbugs, the CDC alleges that these now kill 23,000 US consumers yearly. Perhaps not realizing the implication, they have tied these deaths back to farmers who, fearful of FDA crackdowns in the past, were simply following FDA-approved safety guidelines.

In other words, by following top-down FDA guidelines, farmers contributed to the proliferation of superbugs — the problem the FDA is and has been trying to fight. Missing the point, consumer watchdogs continue to target farmers and drug makers and play right into the hands of an FDA glad to expand its powers.

There are real threats to the health of consumers, and the BBC has even reported that by 2050 superbugs are likely to kill more people than currently die from cancer. However, the fear-mongering tactics now used by interest groups are on dubious grounds, and as they rally the crowd for broader FDA power, private parties are less able to find real solutions to their problems, making all of us less safe.

If the goal is safer meat for consumers, the proper approach is for lawmakers — at the behest of informed constituents — to restrict the FDA’s authority.

Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

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