With everything going on in the world, it’s easy to miss some big (and positive) news in the world of food and public health. Especially when it’s been covered primarily by niche trade magazines like Meat & Poultry and Feedstuffs.
In a move designed to slow the rise of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” in human health linked to farms, a few days ago the European Parliament approved restrictions on the use of antimicrobials in healthy livestock. (Although “antibiotics” and “antimicrobials” are sometimes used interchangeably, antibiotics are actually a subset of antimicrobials.) The new legislation, which is expected to become law by 2022, bans the use of antibiotics for animals that are important for human medicine and prohibits the use of any antimicrobials in livestock without a prescription from a vet, reports Feedstuffs. Antimicrobials cannot be used to improve the performance or compensate for poor animal husbandry (i.e., crowded, unsanitary conditions), says the new law, which also restricts use of antimicrobials as a preventive/prophylactic measure to single animals — not herds or flocks, as is currently de-facto practice.
The restrictions will also apply to meat imported for sale in the European Union. What does that mean for the U.S. beef, pork, and chicken industries in business terms? Not much, really.
The European Union imports very little U.S. meat, because that market is already effectively closed to US producers due to the EU standards already being higher than those here. An EU ban on hormone-treated beef enacted more than a decade ago essentially killed the market for U.S. cattle. (Ironically, Brexit may give American producers a way in.) The EU also pretty much says no thank you to U.S. chicken. And tariffs on non-EU pork make any differences in standards moot.
And yet, “the news is significant,” says Bob Martin, director of the Food System Policy Program at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future, a research and policy institute that has studied antimicrobial policies. (Full disclosure: CLF is advising my company on an update to our antimicrobials policy.) When it comes to antibiotics in agriculture, “The EU, led by Denmark and the other Nordic countries, are a couple of decades ahead of us. The Netherlands, Germany and to some degree the UK are, too.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only begun to address the American meat industry’s dependence on routinely administering small doses of drugs in order to promote growth or prevent disease in the last few years. New rules that took effect January 1, 2017, have made the use of antibiotics for growth promotion illegal and put antibiotics used for prevention under the control of veterinarians. Unfortunately, many public health advocates and critics have warned that the FDA’s rules contain too many loopholes, and said antibiotics will still be abused under the “preventive” label.