The Free Press
The farmers and companies that raise hogs, cattle and poultry for America's dinner tables have a clear interest in preventing diseases from sweeping through large barns of animals.
Their solution has been to increasingly turn to low levels of antibiotics fed to healthy animals as a preventive measure.
That practice led the Food and Drug Administration in 2010 to call the routine use of antibiotics a "serious threat to public health."
The FDA called on livestock producers to voluntarily reduce antibiotic use, but a FDA report last month shows the use of antibiotics instead rose in 2011 with nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics used on livestock. A full 80 percent of all antibiotics sold are used on animals.
The danger in antibiotic use in livestock isn't that people will ingest the drugs -- the antibiotics are flushed from the animals' system before being slaughtered. But the excessive use of antibiotics increases the risk of more antibiotic-resistant super-bugs developing, leading to diseases in humans that can't be treated with current antibiotics.
That's the reason doctors have made a concerted effort to not prescribe antibiotics for things like the common cold, which is caused by viruses not bacteria.
The FDA's record on limiting antibiotics in livestock is not good. In the late 1970s the agency took steps to ban the use of two common antibiotics -- tetracycline and penicillin -- on livestock but failed to follow through. The agency was successfully sued over its inaction but the FDA is appealing that ruling.
In the meantime, Congress is considering reapproval of a law that was intended to at least get accurate data on how much and what kinds of antibiotics are being used in livestock. But even that law -- the Animal Drug User Fee Act -- lacks teeth. It requires drug manufacturers to provide some information to the government, but not enough. And the FDA collects data that aren't released to the public.
As hearings on the drug information bill reauthorization begin, members of Congress have so far shown little willingness to require the livestock industry to provide more detailed information and to make it publicly available.
Congress needs to require better data collection and it needs to pass a law that would require less use of antibiotics in livestock -- legislation that has been introduced but rejected every year for more than a decade.