The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it is getting serious about the threat routine use of antibiotics in livestock poses to human health. The seriousness includes asking farmers and the food industry to stop the practice voluntarily. Since it has been asking this for more than two decades, this hardly counts as a serious response to a real problem.
Last week, Joshua M. Sharfstein, the FDA’s principal deputy commissioner, said antibiotics should be used only to protect the health of an animal. Antibiotics are routinely given to livestock, primarily cows and pigs, to help them grow.
“This is an urgent public health issue,” Mr. Sharfstein said in a conference call with reporters. “To preserve [their] effectiveness, we simply must use them as judiciously as possible.”
This is a reasonable conclusion. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that as much as 70 percent of antibiotics used annually on livestock is not for medical treatment. Instead, the drugs are used to promote growth and to combat the effects of cramped, dirty conditions at some farms.
The problem is that such routine use of antibiotics in animals can lead to the natural development and spread of drug-resistant bacteria, which can harm humans and animals.
In 2008, a new strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, also known as flesh-eating bacteria, was discovered in the United States. A University of Iowa researcher studied two large hog farms in that state and found the bacteria in nearly half the pigs and 45 percent of the farm-ers there. Others studies in the U.S. and other countries found MRSA in pork and beef headed for consumers.
The feeding of antibiotics and other drugs to livestock for growth promotion has been banned in the European Union since 2006.
Given the severity of the threat, the FDA’s continued emphasis on a voluntary cutback on antibiotic use is not only ineffective, but dangerous.
The agency has been asking for a reduction in antibiotic use in animals since 1977. Yet, the problem has only gotten worse.
In the face of intense lobbying, Congress also has failed to step in. For years, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act has languished. The bill, co-sponsored by Olympia Snowe in the Senate, would require the FDA to withdraw the approval of nontherapeutic use of seven classes of antibiotics within two years. It would also require the manufacturers of animal drugs and medicated feed to make their records available to the CDC so it will be better able to track use and resistance trends. The bill also authorizes the secretary of agriculture to make payments to defray the costs of farms transitioning away from the medicines with a priority given to small and family farms.
If the FDA won’t go beyond voluntarily efforts, Congress must step in to curtail this dangerous practice.