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.
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At what point does interesting-but-potentially-incorrect-or-misleading information become a potential threat to health? How do you regulate a product that current regulations were never set up to handle? The University of Michigan's Risk Science Center put together this quick cartoon that neatly summarizes the problems and questions at the heart of the FDA's crackdown on 23andMe, which Xeni wrote about on Monday.
A couple of other smart takes on this that have come out in the past couple of days:
• Genomics expert Michael Eisen delves deeper into the question of how we should regulate personal genetic testing.
• Journalist David Dobbs rounded up some diverse opinions. You should pay attention to his blog. He's been doing a lot of great reporting on genetics and culture and is planning on publishing a longer piece on the 23andMe stuff later this week.
Short version: There is LOTS the FDA doesn't want to tell you about livestock antibiotic use. And that matters. As I reminded you yesterday, the antibiotics we use to keep ourselves alive and healthy are rapidly losing their effectiveness against a whole host of diseases
. Antibiotic resistance to disease is driven by overuse of antibiotics — both in humans and in animals. And there are lots of antibiotics being used on animals. The trouble is, public health researcher know very little about that use. Because the FDA refuses to release more than the bare minimum of data.
For added fun, last year, they stopped even trying to regulate antibiotic use on livestock — opting instead for voluntary self-control systems.