It’s easy to forget when picking up a prescription for strep throat or an ear infection that one of medicine’s most dramatic advances is rattling around inside the pill bottle.
Before antibiotics became readily available, infections that are an inconvenience today could cause life-altering disabilities or even death. The 1924 death of Calvin Coolidge Jr. — the 16-year-old son of the president — from a foot blister that led to a staphylococcus infection is a still-haunting historical reminder of the tragedy that often ensued before these miracle drugs.
Every precaution that can safeguard antibiotics’ potency must be taken to prevent a return to the days when common germs could kill and often did. While doctors are making strides to rein in human overuse that leads bacteria to develop resistance to these drugs, agriculture also needs to do its part to use antibiotics more judiciously in farm animals destined for the table.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is to be commended for giving livestock producers and the animal pharmaceutical industry a recent, overdue push to take this critical public health responsibility more seriously. Minnesota, as one of the nation’s top hog and poultry producers, should be at the forefront of making the sensible changes the FDA is calling for. The state’s nationally respected corps of veterinarians also has an important role to play.
For decades, experts in public health and infectious disease have pushed federal officials to crack down on the use of antibiotics in feed that is given to food animals not for disease treatment but for growth enhancement. It’s not clear why these low doses of antibiotics help animals use feed more efficiently, but it’s widely accepted that they do.
The medicated food also helps keep animals healthier in modern facilities where disease can quickly spread. Those are among the reasons that about 80 percent of reported annual antibiotic sales are for livestock use, according to a March 2013 New York Times commentary by former FDA Commissioner David Kessler.
Some of the antibiotics given to animals, such as tetracycline, are also used in humans. As concerns mount about bacterial resistance to antibiotics and the dearth of new drugs in the development pipeline, it makes sense to focus on all uses of these medications to preserve their potency as long as possible. Doctors and humans need to do better, but so does agriculture.
Earlier this month, the FDA announced a set of policies to phase in curbs on the use of antibiotics for growth enhancement. Essentially, the label changes it’s calling for effectively mean drug companies will no longer sell feed with antibiotics for growth enhancement. Veterinary approval to buy the products is also being phased in. Currently, producers can walk into many farm supply stores and buy them over the counter.
Critics have blasted the FDA for not flexing its full regulatory authority by requiring the label change. It is indeed a voluntary move for drugmakers, though industry heavyweights Elanco and Pfizer-spinoff Zoetis have announced they will comply.
The move also relies on veterinarians to ensure that the practice of using antibiotics for growth promotion doesn’t continue under the guise of “disease prevention” — a use for antibiotic-containing feed still considered acceptable by the FDA. While critics are understandably concerned that vets may be under pressure to approve the continued use of antibiotic feed, veterinarians’ long history of collaborating with human-health experts in tackling foodborne outbreaks and other public health challenges is reason for optimism. Minnesota livestock producers also have a history of acting responsibly and taking seriously their important role in public health.
Reducing the use of antibiotics for growth enhancement is not without consequences. Production techniques and facilities may need adjustments. Food costs may go up.
But returning to an era lacking the human-health benefits of antibiotics is not an option. The FDA’s new measures aren’t complete solutions but nevertheless represent progress in slowing bacterial resistance. That’s especially important because Congress has failed to act. The agency needs to take strong steps to monitor compliance with the new policies and to take other action to safeguard antibiotics’ potency. Still, its new and promising step is a solid foundation to build on.