The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is proposing largely voluntary measures to curtail the use of antibiotics in livestock. They are useful as far as they go, but the agency should do more to close potential loopholes.
Eighty percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used on livestock, not humans. The new FDA rules require farmers and ranchers to get prescriptions for about 200 powerful antibiotics, including penicillin and tetracycline.
These drugs often are administered to large groups of healthy animals for long periods, to make them grow bigger. That can lead to the emergence of drug-resistant "superbugs." Such bacteria can get passed along to humans in meat.
The European Union prohibits the use of antibiotics on healthy animals for growth. By contrast, farm operators can get around the new FDA rules simply by stating they must administer drugs to all of their animals for disease prevention.
The FDA's new rules also do not require drug manufacturers to change labels for products they sell to agricultural users. The agency says it is opting for voluntary cooperation because a mandatory action likely would face legal challenges and would take years to carry out.
But the rules leave loopholes for unscrupulous use of antibiotics in livestock. As long ago as 1977, the FDA itself proposed withdrawing approval for penicillin and tetracyclines from livestock feed.
Last year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said federal agencies have made limited progress in addressing antibiotic use in animals. They said data gaps remain despite better monitoring by federal regulators.
The FDA is on the right track with its new rules. But if it is not prepared to prohibit the administration of powerful antibiotics to animals that don't need them, the rules it adopts must have enough teeth to protect consumers.