Herald-Leader Editorial

FDA disappoints on antibiotics; meat producers breeding superbugs

December 19, 2013 

Antibiotic-resistant infections now kill more Americans — 23,000 a year — than AIDS.

For more than 40 years, scientific evidence has been building that the routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock is jeopardizing the effectiveness of these life-saving drugs in humans and helping breed superbugs that resist treatment.

The Centers for Disease Control report that complications from antibiotic-resistant infections are a contributor to many more deaths, while at least 2 million Americans each year become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

Despite these warnings, beef, pork and poultry producers are buying a record-high almost 30 million pounds of antibiotics a year — four times the amount sold to treat sick people in this country.

We hope we're wrong, but the Food and Drug Administration's new voluntary plan for a three-year phaseout of the routine use of these drugs in livestock and poultry seems hopelessly naive.

In announcing the plan last week, the FDA said the voluntary relabeling of the drugs would be quicker than litigating each drug label by label.

But the FDA plan also includes a loophole allowing continued use of antibiotics in livestock for "disease prevention" as opposed to "growth promotion" or "feed efficiency."

Until recently, some industry groups refused to acknowledge that overuse of antibiotics was even a problem. It's hard to believe they won't just keep using the drugs, which aid in animal weight gain, under a different guise.

Last year, a federal judge ordered the FDA to proceed with a 1977 plan (yes, 36 years, Rod Stewart and Andy Gibb topped the Billboard 100) to ban the non-therapeutic use of certain antibiotics in livestock and poultry production.

That it has taken so long and the response is now so weak undermines public confidence in the FDA as anything other than a captive of the pharmaceutical industry.

Ending the everyday use of antibiotics on livestock that are not sick would require that cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys be raised in healthier, less crowded, more humane conditions. In addition to safeguarding the effectiveness of antibiotics, such a change would also benefit water quality.

The increase in food costs would be more than offset by the potential savings in medical costs not to mention human suffering.

We're lucky in Central Kentucky to have access to locally raised, antibiotic-free meat and poultry. Consumers can do their part by supporting these small farms and responsible producers and by demanding safer meat from groceries and restaurants.

But consumers also need the FDA to step up and fulfill its duty to protect human health.

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