It's easy to understand why the Food and Drug Administration wants to limit the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Antibiotic resistance is a frightening problem. It kills 23,000 Americans a year. Without effective antibiotics "cured" diseases become uncured; hip replacements and organ transplants are too dangerous to contemplate; simple infections turn life threatening. So dire are the consequences that it's natural for FDA to want to curb every possible abuse and overuse of antibiotics.
It's also easy to understand why animal agriculture, while promising cooperation with the new FDA rules, continues to feel picked on. The antibiotics used for animals are, as livestock groups say, mostly different from those used for humans. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as concerned as it is about the use of antibiotics in animals, says most antibiotic infections come from hospitals and nursing homes. Yet there's so much focus on the possibility of resistance from eating meat and so little on doctors who over-prescribe antibiotics and patients who don't finish their courses.
What isn't easy to understand is how the manufacturers of animal antibiotics can say two seemingly contradictory things: that they expect everyone to cooperate with FDA, and that they don't see the new rules hurting their sales.
Here are two possible solutions to this puzzle. If you have others I'd love to hear them.
-- Animal ag's critics are wrong: Livestock raisers aren't overusing antibiotics now and thus will have little cutting back to do. Contrary to what the critics think, producers only use them now to cure disease, or to prevent disease in situations where disease is a clear and present danger.
-- The critics are right: FDA's new rules are riddled with loopholes, and not just because they're voluntary. One big loophole is allowing antibiotics to be used for "preventing" disease, even under a veterinarian's supervision. As long as animals are raised in crowded conditions, as many are today, there will always be a danger of disease, and thus a justification for antibiotic use.
Neither explanation satisfies. The first seems contrary to fact. There's little doubt that at least some animals are being given small doses of antibiotics to promote growth, which is a big part of what the FDA wants stopped. If this use stops, sales will fall.
The second seems too sweeping. Granted, some preventive uses meet the standard of medical necessity: When the animals at a neighbor's operation have a communicable disease your animals are at risk no matter how much space you give them. Other preventive uses, though, are to prevent diseases that are remote or even theoretical. Those uses would end if everyone's playing by the FDA's new rules, and sales will be affected.
Yes, growth in our animal herds might offset the impact, but that's not the same as saying, as one manufacturer did, that the new rules aren't a material event.
A final thing that's hard to understand is how requiring a veterinarian to sign off on antibiotic usage will work in a country with a shortage of large-animal vets. In some states the few vets around are stretched thin with too much work. Sometimes they're a hundred or more miles down the road. Who is going to do all this supervising?
Livestock guys: Educate me, please.
Urban Lehner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org