Editorial: Livestock antibiotics should be regulated


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For years, the practice of giving antibiotics to livestock in attempts to encourage growth and ward off infections has gone unaddressed by the Food and Drug Administration, an omission that has finally been rectified.

On Dec. 11, the FDA announced that it would regulate the use of antibiotics — which are commonly added to the feed or drinking water to promote faster weight gain and prevent disease — in livestock, “banning” certain antibiotics from use. The FDA’s recommendation instructs drug manufacturers to voluntarily alter their labels so that antibiotics are not sold for the purpose of making livestock grow faster.

It’s a clear message and very necessary: Antibiotics should be used to fight disease, not to boost growth. We support the FDA’s move to limit antibiotic use, though stricter restrictions may be necessary to fight the problem in the future.

As in humans, infectious disease among animals can be fought using the right antibiotics. While those that prefer their food organic may disagree, their proper use raises no cause for alarm. And yet, though a livestock farmer may have all the right intentions, the results of antibiotic overuse can be lethal.

After enough of them are administered, the bacteria responsible for causing the infection can become resistant to certain antibiotics, leaving the host helpless. It’s an insidious phenomenon that kills 23,000 people each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number is startling, but when you consider the amount of antibiotics used by livestock farmers, is also unsurprising. Some estimate that as many as 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the country are for livestock use. Doctors have cautioned for years against antibiotic overuse in humans, but it seems the agricultural industry is behind the times.

The warning signs for antibiotic misuse in raising livestock have been there for some time. In 2008, the Pew Charitable Trusts found the persistent use of antibiotics in livestock made the drugs grow weaker and weaker over time. But heavy lobbying from the agricultural industry has prevented change from happening until now.

Unfortunately, this policy change may not mean much as it stands. While the recommendations discourage antibiotic use for bulking up livestock, they lack a legal backing. The FDA has chosen to take an approach focused on voluntary change rather than face the long procedure of product-by-product certification.

Indeed, several researchers and consumer health advocates have argued the industry, which has welcomed the changes as a whole, will not be subject to the kind of oversight that the FDA has promised and that the FDA’s action is more a move to appease growing concerns about antibiotic use.

Still others believe that the FDA’s recommendations place too much of a burden on those raising livestock. They need some wiggle room, it’s argued, to administer antibiotics as they see fit.

But when thousands of people are dying from antibiotic-resistant infections in part because of these practices, the FDA needs to step in. It’s apparent that antibiotic use in livestock has gone beyond the prevention of disease and into the realm of an animal-fattening arms race.

With these new recommendations, the FDA has made a sensible first step in regulating livestock antibiotic use, but more are needed to ensure livestock are being medicated responsibly.

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