President Obama hasn’t talked much about antibiotics use on the farm. Nor has the first lady, who clearly knows that it is less politically risky to advise families to eat more fruits and vegetables than to support policies that could raise the price of meat. But the administration appears interested in change. In 2012, the FDA issued draft guidance that asked the pharmaceutical industry to change labeling and marketing practices so that antibiotics are used only to treat sick animals. It was the first related action the FDA has taken since it first noted the dangers of adding antibiotics to animal feed 34 years ago. Without some push from inside the administration, political watchers say, the agency probably would have continued to stay mum.
But the FDA guidelines don’t go far enough. They allow plenty of wiggle room about what constitutes an appropriate use of antibiotics for disease prevention. And the guidelines are voluntary. Although there is an implicit threat of regulation in the agency’s position, pharmaceutical companies could choose to ignore them.