The market is leading the way on reducing antibiotics in meat production, but it's not enough

There's a lot of good news about a shift in the market towards meat and poultry produced without the routine use of antibiotics. Carl's Jr. is marketing its "All-Natural Burger," with "no added hormones, steroids, or antibiotics." At a recent poultry conference, a session was titled, "Antibiotic-free broiler production isn't a niche market anymore." Top-3 chicken producer Perdue announced last year that it has transitioned away from use of medically important antibiotics in 95% of its operations. These companies are joining early pioneers like Applegate, Chipotle, Panera, and Whole Foods in moving towards meat produced in healthier ways, reflecting the growing movement for food that's healthier for people and the planet.

But heartening as it is to see growing consumer interest in better meat and more companies making it more available to more Americans, that trend alone won't stem the rising tide of antibiotic resistance. We need government to act as well.

Most of the progress so far is in chicken and is still limited to a portion of the industry. The availability of pork and beef produced without the routine use of antibiotics remains limited. Significant portions of the poultry industry continue to raise chickens and turkeys with the routine use of antibiotics. Government action is needed to protect all of us, not just some portion of meat eaters.

Risk from antibiotic use in livestock is not limited to the meat we purchase. The practice can pose a health risk even for people who purchase no-antibiotic meat or no meat. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are more likely to proliferate and thrive when antibiotics are used routinely as they often are in industrial livestock facilities. From there, they can not only make their way onto meat, but also spread into our communities in a number of other ways. Antibiotic resistant bacteria from a livestock facility can disperse through air, water, and soil; via workers; and by sharing resistance genes with other bacteria. People living near swine facilities and fields treated with swine manure, for instance, have been found to be more likely to be infected or colonized by the antibiotic resistant bacteria, MRSA.

Purchasing "no antibiotic" meat at Carl's Jr. is a great option to have and will likely reduce the likelihood of exposure. But simply ensuring that consumers have more choice when it comes to purchasing no-antibiotic meat won't address the broader risk from continued use of antibiotics in meat production. For that, we need government to step in and set rules across the meat industry that ensure antibiotics are being used more safely.

Government action can ensure that every livestock operation puts public health first. Government can help set the baseline for what is acceptable, to ensure that antibiotics are used sparingly on every livestock operation, not just a few, and help prevent the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It is the routine, habitual, uses of antibiotics--risky and unnecessary as they are--that government action should eliminate. There are some circumstances where using antibiotics for livestock still makes sense--for example, to treat a sick animal. A focus on eliminating routine uses might also be more manageable for many producers than eliminating antibiotics altogether, the approach emphasized by existing labels such as "USDA Organic" and "no antibiotics." Government policies can also ensure that veterinarians familiar with the premises and animals oversee antibiotic use on livestock operations and that we have the right data on antibiotic use in livestock to better understand and track use and progress.

This is not to say that government reform of antibiotic use in the meat industry will eliminate all antibiotic resistant bacteria. It won't. Antibiotics used to treat diseases in humans and animals and natural resistance that develops over time will still lead to resistant bacteria in our environment. But, while there is a lot of work underway in human medicine to use antibiotics more wisely, thus far, we've essentially turned a blind eye to antibiotic use in livestock and allowed it to balloon. The right government action can significantly reduce the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by curbing widespread and unnecessary use of antibiotics in livestock. Waiting for the entire market to transition is not a good option: it could take decades and parts of the market may never make the switch away from routine antibiotic use. We need government to act to protect us all.