In 1977, the Food and Drug Administration determined that using antibiotics in livestock for anything other than treating disease could lead to the development of super bugs that could make antibiotics useless in people.
Now, nearly 40 years later, the FDA has finally taken steps to reduce the amount of antibiotics in animals. The use of low doses of antibiotics for livestock is aimed at growing animals faster and to prevent diseases that can spread in crowded, large livestock facilities.
The new FDA regulations will ask drug makers to voluntarily change their labels so that antibiotics are not sold for the use of making animals grow faster.
It’s a long overdue change, but one that will need to be monitored closely to see if it significantly reduces usage.
When antibiotics are routinely used in livestock, they kill susceptible bacteria but allow antibiotic-resistant bacteria to thrive. Those resistant bacteria can then be transmitted to humans through the food supply.
And the amount of antibiotics used in livestock is staggering — accounting for 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the country each year.
The dangers of antibiotic overuse are real and profound. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says at least 23,000 people die every year from antibiotic-resistant super bugs.
There are some big gaps in the new FDA rules that need to be closely watched. First, the FDA will have to monitor if drug makers volunteer to change their labels.
Second, while the FDA rules would prevent the use of antibiotics to make animals grow faster, they don’t prevent them from being used to “prevent” diseases. That loophole could allow producers to argue they are using antibiotics to prevent disease, while also gaining the advantage of faster animal growth.
The American rules are far behind European countries, where many banned the use of antibiotics for animal growth in the 1970s. Other countries, such as the big pork producers of Denmark, banned the use of antibiotics in animals for all purposes a decade ago.
The FDA rules also are lagging behind consumer demands. Many big restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, already reject meat if antibiotics were used to promote growth in the animals.
The FDA has finally addressed a serious public health issue. Now it needs to assure the public that it will follow up and make rule changes as needed.