The Peril of Antibiotic Use on FarmsBy THE EDITORIAL BOARD of the New York Times
Published: December 21, 2013
After years of inaction, the Food and Drug Administration has finally taken an important (that's debatable) step to reduce the use of medically important antibiotics in animal feed. The goal is to curb the rise of bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics used in both human and veterinary medicine.
Earlier this month, the F.D.A. issued a new policy asking drug companies to revise their labels voluntarily to remove statements indicating that the antibiotics can be used to promote growth in livestock. Such a labeling change would make it illegal to use the antibiotics for that purpose. Companies that comply will also have to ensure that the use of the drugs to treat, control or prevent disease in animals is authorized and overseen by veterinarians.
This step depends on the willing cooperation of the drug makers, which will have three months to tell the agency whether they will change the labels, and up to three years to carry out the new rules. Two major manufacturers have already said they will do so.
The rampant use of antibiotics in agriculture has been alarming. The drugs are given not just to treat sick animals, but added in low doses to animal feed or water to speed the growth of cattle, pigs and chickens, thus reducing costs for the producers. Such widespread use of antibiotics in healthy animals has stimulated the emergence of bacterial strains that are resistant to antibiotics and capable of passing their resistance to human pathogens, many of which can no longer be treated by drugs that were once effective against them.
Each year, at least two million Americans fall ill — and 23,000 die — from antibiotic-resistant infections. Doctors are partly to blame because many prescribe antibiotics for conditions like colds that can’t be cured with such drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in September that up to half of the antibiotics prescribed for humans are not needed or are used inappropriately. It added, however, that overuse of antibiotics on farms contributed to the problem.
The F.D.A.’s new policy was praised as an important step by some experts and groups, including David Kessler, a former F.D.A. commissioner long critical of the overuse of antibiotics, the American Academy of Pediatrics and The Pew Charitable Trusts, a strong proponent of reducing antibiotic use in animals. Others like the Natural Resources Defense Council and two Democratic congresswomen, Louise Slaughter of New York and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, argue that the new policy is not sufficiently restrictive because it will still allow farms to administer antibiotics to healthy livestock to prevent disease — a potential loophole that could lead to indiscriminate use. Preventive use is particularly common in factory farms where animals are jammed together in pens where disease can spread rapidly.
A move to end the use of antibiotics to promote growth, while a strong first step, does not go far enough. The F.D.A. ought to limit antibiotic use to treating animals that are already sick or in special circumstances where a healthy animal is likely to become sick. The risks to public health from resistant bacteria require a stringent response.