Representatives from more than 150 food producers, major restaurants and retailers, pharmaceutical companies and healthcare groups have gathered in Washington for a forum on antibiotic resistance, the White House announced Tuesday. The Obama administration is expected to use the opportunity to prod food producers and pharmaceutical companies to make sweeping voluntary commitments to curb the unnecessary use of antibiotics in both livestock and human health, and hasten the search for alternatives.
To set the stage, the White House said on Tuesday that it will request federal agencies to begin purchasing meat that is produced with “responsible antibiotic-use,” which presumably means animals that are raised with fewer antibiotics. The term was not clearly defined in a news release. Some federal cafeterias will change their purchasing habits by the end of the year, but it will take five years for the policy to fully take effect.
Antibiotics help ward off bacterial infections in many common illness and surgeries, but the effectiveness of these medicines has eroded as bacteria builds resistance. The rate at which resistance develops is hastened by widespread use in hospitals and in livestock, often to prevent disease and make chickens and cows grow larger. The Food and Drug Administration also debuted new rules Tuesday governing the way that veterinarians prescribe antibiotics to livestock, which will clarify limits on the nonessential use of these medicines that were first announced in 2013.
The administration also unveiled a list of over 150 businesses and healthcare groups that have made formal commitments to improve antibiotic stewardship and slow the rate of resistance. On Tuesday morning before the summit kicked off, Elanco Animal Health, which is the veterinary division of Eli Lilly and Company, revealed an eight-step plan to stop marketing antibiotics for growth promotion and commit two-thirds of the company’s livestock research budget to develop alternative medicines.
Foster Farms, is a leading producer of organic and all-natural poultry, also said Monday that it will introduce two new lines of antibiotic-free chicken to major West Coast retailers. The company, which is based in California’s Central Valley, already bans farmers from dolling out antibiotics that are necessary to treat people and prohibits the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. McDonald's, Walmart, Tyson Foods and Smithfield Farms were among those invited to attend Tuesday's forum, National Geographic reports.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 2 million Americans already become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year and about 23,000 of those people die as a result. The World Health Organization has called for “urgent action” on this issue and warned of a “post-antibiotic era” in which routine procedures such as a hip replacement often turn deadly.
The Obama administration issued an executive order last year that pushed multiple agencies to take action on this issue and has requested $1.2 billion in the 2016 budget to fund the new initiatives. In March, the administration released a national plan with policies to dictate responsible use in hospitals but which was criticized for relying largely on voluntary measures to curb use in agriculture.