FDA takes first step toward food system reform

Saying giving antibiotics to animals is a threat to human health, the DA is issuing the first "draft guidance" against what is essentially standard industry practice.

One of the continuing themes here is that we're not fat because we're bad, or because business is evil.

We're fat because we are reacting rationally to the incentives government has placed in the food supply market. These incentives favor quantity over quality, protein over vegetables, and things like corn syrup over cane sugar.

Change the incentives in the production and manufacturing of food, I argue, and consumers will respond. Just saying "eat healthy" when you have an unhealthy production system won't get the job done.

Meaningful change would have to take place across many federal departments. It would require the cooperation of Congress, and new budget priorities. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which dates back to 1906, is now taking the first tentative steps.

Saying giving antibiotics to animals is a threat to human health, the agency is issuing the first "draft guidance" against what is essentially standard industry practice.

Deputy commissioner Joshua Sharfstein warned the industry that new regulations will be issued if the industry doesn't comply with the draft guidance, but following through will be difficult.

That's because the industry seems poised to resist. An analysis of the European Union's 2006 ban on antibiotics at ThePoultrysite, an industry web site, concluded that the ban, especially on feed additives, did more harm than good and the U.S. "should learn from the EU experience and proceed with caution."

There are two reasons why antibiotics are given to pigs and chickens. One is to promote growth. The other is to prevent disease. Present production methods have become highly dependent on antibiotics for these purposes. Dropping the drugs means changing how food is produced.

Today's pig and chickens don't really come from farms. They come from factories. There are several chicken factories near land my family owns in Texas. Pullets come in, eggs and meat ready for slaughter come out. There's nothing like farming about it.

Despite the resistance, we know that production change can be forced on the industry. Early this year, Russia forced many U.S. chicken producers to stop using chlorine. Pressure from other importers can combine with government action to move things along.

Sustainable production, however, costs money, and at least in the short run means you pay more for your food.

Just BARE chicken (above), a new brand for more naturally-produced poultry, costs at least $2 per pound, twice what your average Tyson chicken costs.

(How do I deal with the price increase? I buy whole, butcher it into serving pieces myself, and make soup by roasting the carcass and boiling it.)

Just BARE isn't coming from some hippie. Gold 'n Plump Poultry is a $200 million company, one of the largest producers of chicken in the Midwest. The feed does not include antibiotics, nor animal byproducts. Each package contains a code that can trace it back to the farm where it was raised.

Gold 'n Plump is a drop in the bucket of U.S. chicken production, which represents 18% of the world's total. But its success does prove change is possible.

Now all we need are the right market incentives to keep it growing. The FDA is not the Department of Agriculture, but it has taken the first step in that direction.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com