In a letter to Congress this week, a coalition of agricultural groups sharply criticized a campaign launched this month to reduce the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals. The letter, signed by 17 groups representing the interests of meat and poultry producers, veterinarians and feed suppliers, stressed the importance of antibiotics in animal production and said the campaign title – “Meat Without Drugs” – is misleading because antibiotics used to treat animals don’t end up in the final product. “Our U.S. meat and poultry supply is ‘without drugs,’ say the authors. “Livestock and poultry are sometimes treated with antibiotics to prevent, control and treat diseases, but strict withdrawal periods must be followed to ensure that no residues are contained in the products we consume.” Consumers Union began its campaign in June because it felt that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had not taken strong enough steps to regulate agricultural antibiotic use, despite growing evidence that the widespread use of antibiotics on farms is contributing to drug resistance in pathogens that cause disease in humans. In April, the agency published a guidance on the “judicious use” of antibiotics in food-producing animals, which recommends that antibiotics be used only to prevent and treat disease among animals, but not for growth promotion. FDA has also issued draft guidance for drug companies suggesting that antibiotics used for growth promotion and to prevent disease require a prescription from a vet to administer. Frustrated that FDA’s policies lack teeth, Consumers Union is calling on grocery stores to offer only antibiotic-free meat as a way to pressure farmers not to use antibiotics in livestock production. But this week’s letter from industry and veterinarians says the Consumers Union campaign is misguided. The authors take special issue with Consumers Union’s claim that animals on factory farms are raised in crowded and unsanitary conditions – thus the need for drugs to prevent the spread of disease. “This often repeated assertion simply defies logic from an economic and good husbandry standpoint,” says the letter. “It can cost producers hundreds of thousands of dollars to erect indoor facilities – facilities designed by experts giving careful consideration to promote productivity by helping minimize economic losses caused by disease and the associated necessary treatment of sick animals.” The letter also points out that while Consumers Union asserts that 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used to promote growth and prevent disease in factory farm animals, the widely cited 80 percent statistic actually refers to the proportion of antibiotics used in all food-producing animals for all uses, including treatment of sick animals. The document points out that industry is working to comply with FDA’s guidance on the judicious use of antibiotics in agriculture and on bringing medically important drugs under the control of veterinarians. The signatories also say they would be willing to consider labels for meat to mark which foods come from animals raised using antibiotics. They do not go as far as agreeing that reducing antibiotic use in animals will help slow the development of drug resistance in microbes. “The issue of antiobitic resistance is complex and cannot be addressed with simple solutions – at best, such solutions are ineffective and in some situations could make the problem worse.” The letter cites a Denmark study which observed that reducing antibiotic use on farms did not produce a reduction in antibiotic resistance “except for a few limited examples.” The document was signed by the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, American Association of Small Ruminant Practitioners, American Association of Swine Veterinarians, the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Feed Industry Association, American Meat Institute, American Veterinary Medical Association, Animal Agricultural Alliance, Animal Health Institute, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Grain and Feed Association, National Milk Producers Federation, National Pork Producers Council, National Turkey Federation, North American Meat Association and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association.