When it comes to livestock antibiotic use, what the Food and Drug Administration says and what it does are two different things.

Even though the FDA knows antibiotics pose a significant threat to human health, the agency has allowed dozens of antibiotics to be used in animal feed, according to a new report by leading environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Between 2001 and 2010, the FDA conducted safety reviews of 30 antibiotics approved for use in livestock, and nearly all of them — 26 to be exact — failed the agency’s safety standards, and 18 of them were rated as “high risk.” But these antibiotics continued to be given to animals.

This failure to act on antibiotic feed additives is nothing new. For decades, the agency hasn’t really dealt with this issue. (See this earlier OGP story about the FDA’s feeble attempt to curb antibiotic use in animals, for example.) But the agency’s inaction is alarming, and something needs to change. Since the 1970s, scientists have warned that antibiotics are causing a rise in drug-resistant superbugs — a problem that continues today.

Although the FDA doesn’t disclose sales of specific drug products, the NRDC found evidence suggesting that at least nine of the antibiotics are being marketed today, and all but two remain approved for use.

In late 2013, FDA cracked down on antibiotics at farms, but can they be trusted?

In December 2013, the FDA announced new policies to limit the use of antibiotics in cows, pigs, and chickens raised for food — a process that will phase out these additives over the next three years — but loopholes exist. For example, animal producers can keep using the same low doses of antibiotics if they say the additives are needed to keep animals from getting sick.

“No one should underestimate how big a lift this has been in changing widespread and long entrenched industry practices,” said David Kessler, a former FDA commissioner, about the new policy. But there seems to be plenty of room for concern.

What can be done?

According to the NRDC, the FDA should:

  1. Stop its decade-long delay and withdraw the approval of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed.

  2. Withdraw approval for all other classes of medically important antibiotics approved for nontherapeutic livestock use that are shown to be unsafe.

But what about the FDA’s inaction? They call on Congress, food industry leaders, and consumers to demand change.

So what can you do? Support companies, such as Panera Bread, who are concerned about and taking action against antibiotic use in livestock and poultry. And encourage other companies to be concerned about antibiotics as well.

And, yes, limiting or cutting out your meat consumption can reduce your exposure to these antibiotics, but a choice to consume animals affects us all. We all must now deal with these superbugs, and even animals are getting sick due to antibiotics.

Green Monsters: What will you do to contribute to this important issue?