The Food and Drug Administration’s prudent move to phase out the use of antibiotics is justified, if overdue.
The overuse of antibiotics, in medical treatment and agriculture, has led to the development of deadly “superbugs” that are resistant to drugs.
Though the problem has been highlighted for years, government officials have been reluctant to act.
In 2009, an Associated Press investigation found the nation used about 35 million pounds of antibiotics a year and “70 percent of the drugs went to pigs, chickens and cows.”
Some of those antibiotics are used to protect the animals’ health, but much of the medicine is aimed solely at promoting rapid growth.
It’s understandable that farming operations that face narrow profit margins would want to increase productivity. But such widespread use can result in the development of drug-resistant bacteria that can be spread to humans.
In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 2 million people in the United States contract drug-resistant infections a year and at least 23,000 of those cases are fatal.
Much of this is the result of antibiotics being overprescribed, but the agricultural use also plays a role.
The FDA’s reaction is measured, and should diminish agriculture’s antibiotic use without crippling the industry.
The agency earlier this month announced it will request that drug companies voluntarily quit labeling drugs commonly used to treat human infections as acceptable for growth promotion in animals.
Several drug manufacturers have already indicated they will comply. And a number of restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, are seeking to limit the drugs in their meat.
So the marketplace, as well as FDA, is pushing the industry to curtail antibiotic use.
It is significant the government did not rule out the use of all antibiotics to promote animal growth, only those that are important to human health, such as penicillins and tetracyclines.
The FDA’s action will not, of course, remove the threat of drug-resistant bacteria, which most frequently occurs in hospitals.
The overuse of antibiotics in medical treatments remains a threat.
The CDC report this year found that as many as 50 percent of antibiotics are prescribed incorrectly or to patients who do not need them.
So the health-care industry, like agriculture, needs to make adjustments.
Preserving these lifesaving drugs warrants a little more discipline in the doctor’s office and the farmyard.