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New USDA-Certified Standard on Antibiotics Limits Some, but Not All Sub-therapeutic Antibiotic Use in Poultry

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future researchers call for stricter standards, but note this is a positive step for public health

May 07, 2015

The School Food FOCUS, a collaboration of institutional purchasers of food for children, and The Pew Charitable Trusts, introduced the first USDA-certified standard to minimize the use of antibiotics in poultry production, specifically aimed at helping schools put poultry raised with responsible antibiotic use on school menus.

The Certified Responsible Antibiotic Use Standard, known as CRAU, is the only USDA-certified standard that dictates minimal use of medically important antibiotics in poultry production—and only with veterinary oversight. Poultry companies interested in meeting CRAU must undergo regular USDA audits to verify compliance and strictly monitor their use of antibiotics that have human analogues, and therefore are considered “medically important.”

Decades of scientific research including studies led by CLF researchers have linked the misuse of antibiotics in food animals to rising antibiotic resistance among people. The CRAU Standard requires poultry farmers who wish to be certified to restrict the use of medically important antibiotics to the treatment of diseased animals, or for disease prophylaxis under the supervision of a veterinarian.

It does not, however, require poultry producers to limit their use of antibiotics without human analogues. Therefore, poultry producers can be CRAU certified and still use certain types of antibiotics on a regular basis with no oversight or limitations. It is normal practice in the poultry industry to mix these drugs with feed and water day after day as a way to compensate for poor animal welfare and environmental conditions in the production system.

“Focusing efforts solely on antibiotics important in human medicine overlooks other classes of antibiotics which contribute to the growing threat of antibiotic resistance,” said Bob Martin, director of the Food Policy and Public Health program with the CLF. “While this is a step in the right direction, we need a comprehensive approach  and policies in place which eliminate the misuse of all antibiotics in food animal production.”  

Problems can arise from any class of antibiotics being fed to animals at low doses for long periods of time. Sub-therapeutic use of these “non-medically important” antibiotics can still lead to bacterial resistance. According to researchers at the CLF, feeding antibiotics to animals that are not sick kills off susceptible bacteria while through spontaneous mutation, some bacteria have genes that provide protection against the antibiotic. This situation creates the perfect storm for antibiotic-resistant bacteria to multiply and thrive, putting the public at risk when they ingest improperly prepared meat from animals harboring these resistant bacteria or come into direct contact with these animals or their waste.

“Increased transparency and accountability of antibiotic use within the poultry industry is a positive step towards improving public health and keeping our schools and communities safe,” said Robert Lawrence, MD, director of the CLF. “We support the efforts of School Food FOCUS and The Pew Charitable Trusts and urge expanding the standard to include all classes of antibiotics, not just those important in human medicine.”