With tough new policies, FDA and the White House are signaling a ‘preference’ for antibiotic-free meat. Is a full-on phase-out underway? Good question. Short answer: Not just yet.

The White House convened a meeting this week to address with the threat of antibiotic resistance. In attendance were 150 food companies, retailers, pharmaceutical and agricultural companies, hospitals, research firms and some consumer advocacy groups.

To kick off the mostly secret summit President Obama directed federal agencies to begin buying meat and poultry raised with “responsible antibiotic use.”

In practical terms, what does “responsible use” actually mean? For starters, the White House announced that the General Services Administration will begin identifying vendors who can provide antibiotic-free meat and poultry as an option in the federal cafeterias managed by the agency. By 2020, administration intends for each federal agency to create a “preference” for awarding these procurement contracts — to the extent that they’re available and cost-effective.

Which narrows the pipeline significantly, but nevertheless puts a date certain on a shift toward fully antibiotic-free federal meat and poultry purchasing.

In addition, according to several news reports, the Presidential Food Service, which prepares meals for the president and the First Family, caters officials state dinners and operates the White House dining rooms, also announced a commitment to serving meat and poultry from livestock raised without hormones and antibiotics.

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration released its Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) final rule to “promote the judicious use of antimicrobials” in food animals. FDA’s goal is to assure that antibiotics intended for use in feed will require veterinary supervision and requires states to create a framework for use of “medically important antimicrobials” in feed when required for animal health, ie, for treating disease.

The rule requires that veterinarians:

  • Issue VFDs within the context of a veterinarian-producer-animal relationship
  • Engage with producers to assume responsibility for making clinical judgments about an animal’s health
  • Conduct examinations and/or visits to the facility where the animal is managed
  • Provide for any necessary follow-up evaluation or care

None of that represent a radical sea change from FDA’s pervious policies. What’s interesting is the larger response to the agency’s VFD final rule and the White House initiative on sourcing antibiotic-free meat and poultry.

A much different reaction

While several consumer groups praised the administration for “flexing its considerable purchasing power to help build the market for meat and poultry produced with ‘responsible’ use of antibiotics,” the Natural Resources Defense Council issued a statement stating that the federal government needs to do more to ensure that antibiotics are used “only to treat sick animals and control disease outbreaks.”

In referring to a recent poll NRDC commissioned in California regarding the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, the activist group released a statement saying, “The vast majority of Californians say antibiotic use is problematic” and that the state needs to take further action.

“The practice of giving routine doses of antibiotics to animals is akin to giving antibiotics to your kids before they head off to day care, when what they should be doing is washing their hands,” said Avinash Kar, NRDC’s health attorney.

Well — when you put it that way . . .

Givn the activist community credit: They know how to position this issue in a way that stirs “the vast majority” of consumers to react negatively.

And it’s having an effect.

This new White House initiative may not feel groundbreaking, maybe more like yet another volley in a skirmish that’s been ongoing for a while now. But try to imagine if the exact same policy had been announced 10 years ago, back when Lance Armstrong was still an heroic athlete cycling his way to a record seventh Tour de France victory, when Michael Jackson was being exonerated on child molestation charges and when the highest profile Senate debate of the year was the wrangling over removing Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube.

In 2005, a presidential directive ordering federal agencies to source meat and poultry raised without antibiotics would have been greeted with surprise by the media, skepticism by consumers and total shock from industry, which would have been easily able to characterize such an order as outrageous, over-reaching and out-of-touch with the imperatives of assuring that Americans have access to affordable meat and poultry products.

In 2015, however, industry reaction has been muted, and with good reason. Although no scientific consensus exists to definitely link sub-therapeutic use of antimicrobials in animal agriculture with the emergence of drug-resistant pathogens in human medicine, it’s no longer possible to pretend that no connection whatsoever exists.

At best, industry can talk trade-off: A more efficient production system that helps make beef, pork and chicken affordable, versus the risk of making the problem of antibiotic resistance even worse for the nation’s hospitals and physicians.

Are these parallel announcements from the White House and FDA, and the reaction to them, signaling the beginning of the end for routine use of low-level anti-microbials to support animal health and promote efficient growth?

Not just yet.

But it sure ain’t 2005 anymore.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator