School Lunch May Be Next to Nudge Antibiotics Off the Plate

While U.S. regulators and industry representatives have been arguing for decades about the proper regulation of antibiotic use in livestock, the market has been moving ahead of them, pushed by consumers who are concerned about antibiotic resistance and want some say in the way their food is produced. I pointed it out when McDonald’s decided in March to eliminate routine antibiotic use in the chicken it buys, and again last month when production giant Tyson Foods said it would do the same for the chickens it raises.

On Thursday came more evidence for the consumer-driven approach: The influential nonprofit School Food FOCUS (Food Options for Children in the United States), joined by the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts, announced that it has brokered an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a new “responsible antibiotic use” designation for chicken, the protein that school kids eat more than any other.

The first company to sign on to the voluntary Certified Responsible Antibiotic Use standard, according to the nonprofits: Tyson Foods, which said it has already converted one processing plant to comply.

The key aspects of the standard: It holds companies to a limited list of antibiotics and compels them to consult a veterinarian whenever antibiotics are used. And it requires them to submit to a third-party audit by the USDA under two existing audit schemes, the Process Verified Program and the Quality System Assessment.

The parties achieved the agreement with the backing of the National Procurement Initiative, which oversees school-food purchasing for 2.3 million children and spends $36 million per year just on chicken.

“This is a market-driven, grassroots solution to a critical public health challenge, and demonstrates the leadership school districts can exert as institutional buyers,” Kathy Lawrence, the director of strategic development at School Food FOCUS, said in a media briefing. “Our hope is that this standard could set a new industry-wide expectation for responsible antibiotic use, independently verified by the U.S. government.”

Dr. Gail Hansen, a veterinarian who leads the Pew Trusts’ efforts to reduce farm antibiotic use, added: “This new standard will guide producers who want to use antibiotics in the most limited way possible in order to protect animal health, reduce overall antibiotic use, and ultimately help slow the growth of superbugs that threaten human health worldwide.”

The granular details of the standard go further than any government action thus far, because they address drugs both by type (for instance, used in human medicine versus veterinary-only) and also by drug family. Thus, for instance, cephalosporins (Keflex, for humans, but also used in animals) are allowed only on the first day of a chicken’s life; penicillin, only with a veterinary diagnosis that includes both a culture of the bacteria and a test for resistance; and carbapenems, a last-resort human drug, are not allowed at all.

Despite international concern over it, antibiotic use in agriculture has been rising both in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. If a standard like this is widely adopted, it could affect that trend, and the antibiotic resistance that has followed it.

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