Antibiotic abuse on the farm [Editorial]

The rise of drug-resistant bacteria is one of the more alarming health threats of the past several decades. Some of the nation's top hospitals, including one operated by the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, have experienced deadly outbreaks.

Altogether, such infections kill an estimated 23,000 Americans each year, which is more than die of leukemia, Parkinson's disease or HIV/AIDS, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One factor thought to be contributing to the deadly trend is the use of antibiotics in farm animals.

That's why the announcement this week by the federal Food and Drug Administration that regulators will ask drug manufacturers to voluntarily alter their labels so that livestock producers will no longer be able to use antibiotics to promote animal growth is a step in the right direction. The only question is whether it represents a big enough step.

That the rule is voluntary is troubling enough, but just as concerning is that the FDA has left open the opportunity for producers to use antibiotics for "disease prevention." The loophole means producers can claim whole flocks of chickens or herds of cattle should be administered drugs for therapeutic goals but will still benefit from the faster growth rates.

As Keeve Nachman, a scientist with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, observed, the guidelines only change how drugs are labeled, not necessarily how they will be used. The FDA could easily have taken bolder action to protect the effectiveness of antibiotics — and reduce the likelihood that the "superbug" problem will worsen.

Clearly, what's needed is a fundamental change in farm practices. The meat industry is attracted to antibiotics not only because they promote growth but because they allow animals to be raised in close quarters and factory-like conditions. Under those circumstances, the risk of bacterial infection spreading among animals is greater.

This may also be a case of a regulatory agency closing a barn door a bit late. Consumers have increasingly looked for meats that are antibiotic-free. Fast-food giant McDonald's already won't buy beef that has been treated with antibiotics used in human medicine "when used solely for growth promotion purposes."

Nor is the U.S. exactly on the cutting edge of the public health trend. Many European countries banned the use of penicillin, streptomycin and tetracyclines to boost animal growth rates in the 1970s. The laws were updated across the European Union in 2006. Denmark, a huge pork exporter, restricted the use of antibiotics in animals for all purposes 10 years ago — and discovered costs only rose marginally for its farmers.

How was that possible? Experts say better animal management practices that improve sanitation and reduce stress on the animals will make them less susceptible to bacterial infections. In others word, more open spaces and fewer feedlots.

What makes this problem particularly alarming is that fewer new antibiotics are in the development pipeline to replace those already on the market. Drug-resistant infections are costing Americans an estimated $26 billion in health care costs annually, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Right now, farmers use far more antibiotics to treat animals than doctors prescribe to human beings — and that's been the case for years. That fact alone should have spurred stronger regulatory action years ago.

Nevertheless, the FDA's plan may lack sufficient bite, but it should prove helpful. And it also has the benefit of strong support from companies like Zoetis and Elanco, leading makers of veterinary drugs, and from the meat industry, which has now gone on record in support of reducing antibiotic use in farm animals. Closer to home, Salisbury-based Perdue Farms Inc. has already taken the position of using antibiotics only under a veterinarian's supervision when "medically appropriate" and not to promote growth.

If that's the case, making the rules mandatory instead of voluntary — and investing in greater monitoring to ensure compliance — ought to be the agency's next step. After all, the FDA should be about protecting human health, not corporate profits. We strongly suspect the public would not mind paying slightly more for meat (if that's even necessary) if it reduces the likelihood of a life-threatening bacterial outbreak.

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