Only the first step

New guidelines that would limit antibiotic use in livestock are commendable, but should be backed by law


For years, farmers have fed cattle, poultry, and hogs low levels of antibiotics to make them grow bigger and faster. Overuse of these medications is linked to growing resistance to antibiotics in people who eat products from such animals.

New federal guidelines aimed at eventually phasing out some use of antibiotics in farm animals are welcome. But if they are to be effective, they need to have the force of law, rather than reliance on voluntary compliance.

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World health leaders call infections that are resistant to antibiotics “nightmare bacteria.” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that these super-bugs kill at least 23,000 people and infect at least 2 million more each year in the United States. These deaths can occur anywhere, but most take place in health-care settings such as nursing homes and hospitals.

The guidelines proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration offer a three-year timetable for phasing out some “subtherapeutic” uses of antibiotics, and increasing veterinarians’ supervision of the drugs’ use. They ask drug makers to change labels and over-the-counter directions, so that medically important antimicrobial drugs are no longer used to fatten up livestock and increase “feed efficiency.”

Instead, the FDA advises, such drugs should be used only to treat or prevent disease in animals. But the guidelines are based on voluntary compliance by drug companies, veterinarians, and farmers. By contrast, the European Union prohibits the use of antibiotics on healthy animals for growth.

U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D., N.Y.), a microbiologist, says the overuse of antibiotics has created “a public health crisis.” She has introduced useful legislation that would prohibit administering an antimicrobial drug to a food-producing animal unless there is a significant risk of disease or infection.

Eighty percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are used on livestock, largely for nonmedical reasons. Consumers are moving past the FDA and demanding stricter controls over their food.

That demand prompted Kroger to launch a line of organic foods a year ago, says company spokesman Jackie Siekmann. The meat and dairy products, which are free of antibiotics and added hormones, are doing well, she says.

Lindsay Graham, a farmer in west Lucas County who sells meat at a Toledo health-food store, says he has raised livestock without added hormones and antibiotics — except to prevent animals’ death — for 30 years. He says factory farms use antibiotics to save money on production; he blames a “false pricing system” supported by federal subsidies.

Leah Dorman, senior director of animal and food policy at the Ohio Farm Bureau, expresses concern about farmers’ ability to cope with the new FDA rules. Any shift in production practices could raise prices for consumers, she warns.

But there is also a price to be paid when overuse and misuse of antibiotics compromise their life-saving properties. The FDA proposals should take effect, and they should be mandatory.