WITH ALL the gridlock in Washington, it is gratifying when, once in a while, a problem shows signs of resolution beyond the Beltway.
After decades of inaction, concern about the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is finally gaining traction, not because of federal regulations or congressional legislation, but because smart people around the nation are listening to consumers and thinking creatively about new ways of doing things.
Antibiotic resistance is a serious global problem that is growing worse. Bacteria have emerged that can defeat antibiotics, drugs that have been lifesavers for more than half a century. At fault is overuse and misuse of antibiotics in human health care, as well as widespread and often indiscriminate use of the drugs for farm animals. For decades, the agriculture industry has used antibiotics in feed and water to help farm animals grow faster and larger on the same amount of feed and to prevent disease in a whole flock or herd.
It is entirely proper to give antibiotics to sick animals. But now there is real movement away from the practice of using them for growth promotion, and the wisdom of using the drugs for prevention is being questioned.
The latest action came in a law signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Oct. 10. It will impose restrictions on the use of farm antibiotics starting in 2018. The law says that antibiotics important in human medicine cannot be used for growth promotion in animals, and it gives veterinarians an important role in decisions about when to use them.
The law permits the use of antibiotics for prevention when there is an “elevated risk” of disease spreading, but it prohibits the use of these drugs “in a regular pattern.” While this language is a bit vague, the law will still be tighter than federal guidelines. The Food and Drug Administration has asked drugmakers to remove growth promotion, but not prevention of illness, from permitted use of antibiotics . What’s impressive about the California example is that the law came about as a result of cooperation among representatives of public health, medicine, government, academia and agriculture.
The law also includes civil penalties for violations. It will be important to see how food producers adapt; ideally they will create methods for animal husbandry without antibiotics that could be applied nationwide.
The second promising development was the announcement by the food chain Subway that next year it would start serving chicken and turkey raised without antibiotics in all of its 27,000-plus outlets in this country. The company pledged to phase out antibiotic use in pork and beef within a decade. The company made no secret that it was responding to consumer desires, and it thus joins several other major food producers, including Tyson Foods and McDonald’s , in restricting antibiotic use. The market is speaking — and companies are listening.
Antibiotics are a vital resource. They save lives. The point is not to get rid of them but to protect their effectiveness for when they are most needed.