We are what we eat, so beware of additives

A federal court has given the U.S. Food and Drug Administration a legal push to stop the overuse of common antibiotics in animal feed and make the food supply safer.

The overuse of antibiotics has been linked to the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections among humans that are more difficult and costly to treat. It poses a growing problem in the food supply, putting the health of Americans at risk, especially children and people who are prone to chronic illnesses, experts say.

Those serious concerns were cited last week by U.S. Magistrate Judge Theodore Katz in New York in ordering federal regulators to start proceedings to halt their use, unless drug makers can provide evidence that they are safe.

The FDA could appeal the decision, which stems from a lawsuit that was brought by consumer advocacy groups, but it shouldn’t do that. After all, the FDA reached the same conclusion 35 years ago, when it started, but never completed, proceedings to withdraw its approval for certain antibiotics in livestock feed.

Farmers routinely give antibiotics to hogs, cattle, poultry, and other animals to treat illnesses, prevent infection, and to spur the animals’ growth. But the types of drugs being fed to livestock are the same as those in medicines for humans.

A study cited by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that antibiotic-resistant infections in humans cost the U.S. health care system more than $20 billion annually.

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Undoubtedly, the powerful drug industry, farm groups, and agribusiness lobbies will oppose attempts to limit the use of antibiotics. Instead, they should take a lesson from the industry’s quick response to the public furor concerning the so-called “pink slime” added to hamburger meat.

For years, people have unknowingly eaten hamburgers and other ground beef containing filler — beef trimmings mixed with ammonium hydroxide gas — to kill bacteria and salmonella. It has also been routinely served in schools, and until recently some fast-food burgers were made with meat with pink slime.

There is no evidence to suggest that the icky-sounding additive is unsafe. But the discovery has raised troubling new questions about food labeling.

As the story about pink slime went viral, however, the market responded swiftly. Several grocery chains announced they would no longer sell meat with the filler, and schools will be able to opt out, too.

A similar response is needed to the scientific evidence that meat and poultry producers overuse antibiotics. People need to have confidence that their food won't harm them.

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