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Chicken, Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, and Regulatory Independence

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After my post Monday on aspartame's wild and wacky path from pharmaceutical-company lab to beverage sweetener for millions of people, I got into a back-and-forth on Twitter with star progressive bloggers Matt Yglesias and Adam Ozimek.

They seemed shocked (and a little angry) by my suggestion that something approved both by the FDA and its European counterparts might actually menace the public health. Well, I, in turn, am shocked by the credibility they lavish on these institutions. When you study the politics of food, stories of the "FDA [or USDA or EPA or some European agency] approves [insert dodgy, lucrative practice or substance]" nature are hardly earth-shaking.

Indeed, industry influence over the food-related regulatory institutions seems pretty widespread, as I tried to show in the aspartame post. On Tuesday, an all-too-apt example crossed my desk. It involves the practice of routine use of antibiotics on factory farms -- which almost certainly contributes to the surge in antibiotic-resistant infections among people. MRSA -- an antibiotic-resistant staph infection -- now kills more Americans than AIDS.

So the FDA must be courageously intervening to curtail this menace, yes? Well, not quite. For years, presumably to avoid ruffling the meat industry's, uh, feathers, the FDA neglected to estimate the percentage of total U.S. antibiotic consumption that goes to livestock. But last December, the FDA finally did -- and the answer turned out to be ... a whole lot: something like 60 percent of all antibiotics consumed in the U.S.