June 9th 2006, MAINE USA: Maine is leading the nation with a state law that's the first of its kind to promote the purchase of meat from animals that have not been treated with antibiotics unless they were sick.
Concerns about the human health effects of virtually indiscriminate antibiotic use in animals -- to whom they're fed to promote growth -- has already led both New Zealand and Denmark to ban the use of medically important antibiotics for non-medical use in food animals. The European Union has adopted a similar ban. Maine's move is a positive step, and puts our state in the company of a growing number of progressive public health advocates as well as large-scale food consumers in this country.
As any parent with a miserable child suffering from a prolonged ear infection knows, modern antibiotics are losing their power to fight many of the diseases they once commonly and effectively treated.
One of the reasons antibiotic effectiveness may be waning is that, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are used not to treat humans in the grip of disease, but rather as food additives for poultry, cattle and pigs. The drugs aren't used to treat disease, either; they're used to promote growth in the animals.
Concern about this practice's potential to encourage the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria -- which some studies have shown are then passed on to humans -- led the American Medical Association in 2001 to publicly oppose the routine use of medically important antibiotics in livestock and poultry feed. That group has been joined by a veritable alphabet soup of health organizations, from the American Nurses Association to the American Public Health Association and the World Health Organization, in calling for the phase out of this practice.
Maine's legislation began as a mandate, but bill sponsor Sen. Scott Cowger of Hallowell and his allies recognized quickly that such major change needs to happen gradually.
The policy directs state procurement officials to tell meat producers that Maine prefers to buy products from animals that have not been put on a diet of antibiotic-laden feed. School districts are encouraged to negotiate contracts to buy meat products that meet those guidelines. And finding sources for antibiotic-free meat products shouldn't be as hard now as it might have been just a few years ago. That's because several national meat suppliers, including the nation's largest pork producer, have recently restricted the use of antibiotics to sick animals, or those likely to get sick.
It's common sense that we should have a choice whether to take our medicine. Maine's new policy supports us in making that choice.