Much of the beef, pork or chicken we eat contains small amounts of antibiotics. The drugs are fed to animals so they can thrive in the crowded, often-fetid factory farms that dominate U.S. meat and poultry production.
But giving animals a steady diet of these medicines has contributed to the increase of antibiotic-resistant bugs that can pose grave risks to humans.
This isn’t news to the Food and Drug Administration, which has known since the early 1970s about the misuse of antibiotics in agriculture and done little about it. The agency seemed to be headed in the right direction in 1977, when it proposed a ban on using penicillin and two forms of tetracycline for animal weight gain after finding that the drugs “had not been proven to be safe.” Under pressure from Congress and drugmakers, the agency was ordered to hold hearings. It never did.
This month the FDA finally said it would issue rules for drugmakers and farmers to voluntarily stop putting antibiotics in animal feed and water to help them grow.
The guidelines will ask farmers to phase out the practice over the next three years. Pharmaceutical makers are to change the labels on their products, listing the approved uses.
Unfortunately, the loopholes are gaping. Even if farmers comply, they can still feed animals antibiotics for disease prevention, provided they get a veterinarian’s approval.
Nor is there much in the way of enforcement envisioned to discourage farmers or vets from engaging in off-label usage — giving antibiotics to animals to aid growth. (Animals that are free of disease tend to grow faster, the argument goes.)