Voluntary guidelines for pharmaceutical companies will not wean the livestock industry off its addiction to antibiotics.
Yet that's what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — which has previously taken tentative steps to curb the agricultural use of antibiotics and is under a judge's order to carry out existing laws that call for limiting the overuse of two classes of antibiotics — is proposing. Obviously, the agency wants to avoid a protracted legal battle with producers, and its authority is limited by Congress' repeated refusal to act. But this latest plan falls far short of the decisive action needed to make a difference.
Most of the antibiotics given to livestock aren't used to treat illness but to quicken the animals' growth or as a preventive measure to keep disease from sweeping through the crowded pens and cages that are common to industrial agriculture. Doctors have been growing more cautious about prescribing antibiotics for humans because overuse fosters the development of drug-resistant bacteria; last month, for example, the Infectious Diseases Society of America called for a drastic reduction in antibiotic use for sinus infections for that reason. That's good, but it is of limited use when three-fourths of the antibiotics in this country are used on livestock whose cost-conscious owners haven't shown equal concern about "superbugs."
This week, the FDA proposed guidelines not for the livestock industry but for the pharmaceutical companies that provide farms and ranches with massive amounts of common antibiotics without prescriptions. The guidelines call on drug companies not to sell the drugs without a veterinarian's prescription or for "non-medical uses." Even if pharmaceutical companies were to comply, despite the considerable loss of sales, this would address only antibiotic use for growth and would not stem the use of the drugs to prevent illness. Because the same drugs are commonly used for both, it's hard to see how this would make a sizable dent in the problem.
If the industry did cut back on antibiotic use, food prices would almost certainly rise, at least somewhat. But as long as the drugs are overused, the public is paying in other ways: More exotic antibiotics — and hospitalizations — are necessary to treat infections that once were readily cured with a bottle of pills. And over time, patients will face serious and possibly fatal illness from bacteria that have outwitted doctors' arsenals.
The FDA contends, with justification, that guidelines would work faster than a ban, which would almost certainly be greeted with multiple lawsuits — potentially one for every drug affected. But moving faster isn't necessarily moving better.