Back in September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report connecting the use of antibiotics in livestock to antibiotic resistance in humans. It was an important step in turning science into action. Although human use and misuse of antibiotics and the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitals are important parts of the puzzle of antibiotic resistance, the massive use of antibiotics by the agricultural industry also plays a key role. In fact, the vast majority of antibiotics used in the United States are used by animals. (Reasonable estimates range as high as 80%.)
What's more, the vast majority of that antibiotic use has nothing to do with the health of the animals. The antibiotics have the side effect of promoting weight gain. Important drugs like penicillin and tetracycline are regularly doled out to cows and pigs and chickens as part of their daily feed in order to make them fatter — a practice which has been shown to directly reduce those drugs' effectiveness at treating actual illness in humans. Today, the FDA announced that it plans to change this ... but there are problems.
The FDA is asking drug companies to remove the growth-promotion claims from antibiotic labels — a move that would make the drugs available only with a prescription. Theoretically, at least, that should mean farmers wouldn't be able to get a hold of them without actually having a sick animal diagnosed by a vet.
The holes in the plan should be readily apparent. For one thing, the labeling change is just voluntary. Pharmaceutical companies have three months to let the FDA know whether or not they plan on complying with the request. It will be interesting to see how many do. The other lingering question: Would a label change actually make it more difficult for farmers to use antibiotics for weight gain purposes? It doesn't seem to take into account the existence of online, no-prescription-necessary pharmacies, nor, for that matter, the much more old-fashioned loophole of a friendly vet who is willing to look the other way.
Maryn McKenna is the writer I trust to get the analysis right on issues of antibiotic resistance and farming. As of this writing, she's still in the process of reporting and hasn't yet posted on the FDA's new stance, but you'll want to keep an eye on her blog, Superbug, for updates.
EDIT: It's worth noting, the FDA's Q&A on this points out that they've gone the voluntary route in order to avoid having to regulate each and every antibiotic and antimicrobial drug individually, something that could end up being a lot more complicated. (Thanks for pointing this out, Anastasia Bodnar!)
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.