Skeptics scoffed late last year when the Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines to restrict the use of antibiotics in livestock.
Most of the antibiotic use in this country is in the agriculture industry, with the drugs routinely added to animal feed to promote growth and prevent infections from sweeping through crowded and unsanitary operations.
The voluntary guidelines would never be followed, critics predicted, and agricultural antibiotics would continue to contribute to the rise of resistant infections that sicken 2 million people a year in the United States and kill 23,000.
So far, the results are much rosier. In just the last four months, 25 of the 26 pharmaceutical companies that make antibiotics that are important for human as well as veterinary treatment have agreed to new drug labels prohibiting their use for growth promotion in livestock. (The 26th company is a small firm that caters to the fish farming industry.)
In addition, the drugs must be prescribed by a veterinarian rather than sold over the counter; that will end the practice of adding them to feed.
It’s an extraordinary achievement for the FDA, which had issued the voluntary rules in an attempt to avoid the years-long delays involved in proposing new rules with teeth.
But its work isn’t done yet.
Agricultural antibiotics can still be prescribed for disease prevention, and that’s not a problem as long as it’s done judiciously. If some cattle have been exposed to a highly infectious disease, for example, it makes sense to treat the animals around them or perhaps the whole herd.
Such prescriptions are supposed to have defined start and end dates so they don’t become a substitute for bad animal husbandry practices.
The problem is that rogue veterinarians could decide to make their living as prescription mills for feedlots they’ve never even visited.
At this point, the FDA needs some clear rules for veterinarians, including a requirement that they visit the farms they prescribe for at least occasionally.
Oversight will be needed to ensure that prescriptions to prevent disease are written only when needed, and for limited periods of time.
Decades of failed legislation intended to stop the wanton overuse of agricultural antibiotics have given way to increased understanding among drug companies and the livestock industry of the dangers of this practice.
Trade associations for pork, chicken and beef producers have supported the new guidelines. And meat from animals treated with growth promoters is banned in the European Union.
The guidelines will keep key antibiotics useful for far longer if the FDA backs them up with basic standards for the veterinarians who will write the new prescriptions.