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In our opinion: FDA's new rules on antibiotics and cattle are wise

Published: Saturday, Dec. 14 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

For the past 50 years, animals have been given antibiotics to accelerate growth, not to fight illnesses.

Charlie Wilson, Associated Press

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A new and virulent strain of the E Coli bacteria has proven fatal in Europe, mainly because it is resistant to about a dozen different antibiotics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report in September estimating that so-called “superbugs” are responsible for roughly 23,000 deaths in the United States every year. Viruses that become antibiotic resistant have to evolve through several iterations, which is difficult to do if human outbreaks are relatively scarce. A possible culprit responsible for this particular outbreak is a strain that developed in livestock bred for food.

For the past 50 years, animals have been given antibiotics to accelerate growth, not to fight illnesses. This use accounts for nearly 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States, and these antibiotics are administered with virtually no government oversight. Viruses that develop resistance in livestock therefore do without being detected, which becomes a serious problem when they subsequently are consumed by humans.

We applaud new rules coming from the Food and Drug Administration that will place limits on how antibiotics are used on animals. Drug manufacturers will be asked to voluntarily label their products in order to prevent farmers from misusing them to increase growth instead of treating diseases. According to the FDA, there will be “fewer approved uses [of antibiotics among animals], and the remaining uses will be under tighter control.” They also want to limit over-the-counter access to antibiotics and require veterinary approval before the medicines are administered.

All of these are positive developments, and we applaud them. It is possible, however, that the new regulations don’t go far enough.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y, who also is a trained microbiologist, says the FDA regulations fall “woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.” Some of the requirements are merely voluntary, and Slaughter and others are concerned that farmers will choose to ignore them. That’s a fair point, but it’s also important to note the incentives for farmers aiming them toward greater compliance. To do otherwise would be to risk the wrath of the public at large and to spur even more regulatory oversight.

It may be true that more regulation will be necessary eventually, and this is a situation that ought to be closely monitored. But it is clear that the actions of the FDA to address this problem are a step in the right direction — one that could stem the tide of a trend that may render many currently curable diseases deadly.

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