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Curbing Antibiotic Use in Livestock Production

December 14, 2013

Antibiotics-in-LivestockThe Food and Drug Administration last week announced a new policy intended to phase out the widespread and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in livestock production. The new would limit the use of powerful antibiotics—including penicillin, azithromycin, and tetracycline—which are widely used in rearing livestock. As the New York Times reports,

The change, which is to take effect over the next three years, will effectively make it illegal for farmers and ranchers to use antibiotics to make animals grow bigger. The producers had found that feeding low doses of antibiotics to animals throughout their lives led them to grow plumper and larger. Scientists still debate why. Food producers will also have to get a prescription from a veterinarian to use the drugs to prevent disease in their animals.

The United States relies extensively on antibiotics to maintain the health of livestock herds raised in conditions which facilitate the spread of disease and infection. Antibiotics are most often given to chicken, pigs, cows, and other livestock as part of their regular feed—as a preventative measure—rather than to treat infection. But the widespread use of antibiotics has helped to fuel the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which render existing antibiotics useless and endanger human health.

If successful, the FDA’s new rules would help curtail some of the excessive use of antibiotics that has developed in the livestock industry. But the guidelines are currently voluntary, and critics warn that they could easily be circumvented simply by obtaining a prescription from veterinarians permitting their use. Nevertheless, the new rules represent an important shift in the public discourse around antibiotic use. Such rules—even voluntary guidelines—had historically been resisted by drug manufacturers and the livestock industry. The agreement of Zoetis and Elanco—two of the country’s largest manufacturers of antibiotics for livestock—represent an important concession. But let’s also recognize that the new restrictions are only an important first step in reducing the use of antibiotics in livestock production, and that broader changes are necessary to develop a more sustainable system of agricultural production.

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