THE FOOD and Drug Administration (FDA) announced in 1977 that it would begin prohibiting the use of some antibiotics in agriculture, but Congress objected and nothing happened. Since then, the need for restraint has grown. The wonder drugs of the 20th century have been so widely used that germs are becoming resistant to them, giving rise to “superbugs,” bacteria that are immune to one or more antibiotics. Tens of thousands of people die every year from hospital-acquired infections, the vast majority of which result from such resistant bacteria.
It’s a situation worth pondering when you next reach for meat or poultry at the grocery store. Food animals consume about 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States, of which two-thirds are similar or identical to drugs used in human medicine. Most of them go to make healthy animals grow faster and stay well, often in difficult and crowded conditions. Giving antibiotics to sick animals is proper, but questions continue to be raised about the wisdom of distributing antibiotics in their feed and water supplies to whole flocks and herds for growth-enhancing and prophylactic purposes.
The agricultural industry says that the chances are very small that farm antibiotics will affect human health. But critics are pointing to fresh studies that suggest that antibiotics in agriculture do contribute to the growth of drug resistance and that the bacteria can make their way back to humans through food or the environment. After years of congressional and FDA inaction, the product-testing organization Consumer Reports is hoping to force change by urging shoppers to shun meat and poultry from animals that were fed antibiotics.
We think that consumers ought to make their own choices, and for that they need proper labels. But industry and regulators face more complex problems. They can’t just ban antibiotics, which are a vital tool in medicine, and big changes would be needed in agricultural practices in the United States for farming operations to survive without them.
In April, the FDA issued voluntary guidelines that called on farmers to be “judicious” with antibiotics, limiting their use to ensuring animal health. Significantly, the FDA said, using antibiotics for promoting growth or feed efficiency is not judicious. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) has introduced legislation that would mandate an end to using antibiotics on healthy farm animals. The European Union did so in 2006.
The evidence is overwhelming that bacteria are evolving in ways that make many antibiotic drugs less useful. Overuse of antibiotics in agriculture is not the only reason, but it is a significant part of the equation. A more concerted effort is needed by industry, regulators and science to reverse this trend, before we confront a new generation of superbugs.