Industrial Farms Need a Prescription to Fight Superbugs

Last year, my 12-year-old son came down with a skin infection. He was prescribed an antibiotic, took the full treatment, and got better. Of course there is nothing remarkable about this story these days -- and that, in itself, is actually quite remarkable.

For thousands of years, humankind's most lethal enemies were not saw-toothed predators but tiny microbes. Bears and wolves never halved the population of Europe, but a bacterial plague did.

About 80 years ago, we humans finally gained the upper hand against these germs. Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928 and, within years, once-deadly threats like strep throat and pneumonia became relatively minor ailments. Antibiotics also ushered in an era of medical innovation, allowing organ transplants, cancer chemotherapy, and other now-common surgical procedures that had been prohibitively risky.

But we soon learned that you can have too much of a good thing. Whenever we use antibiotics, we kill some bacteria and encourage the surviving microbes to mutate and become resistant. And, after decades of antibiotic overuse, drug-resistant bacteria now sicken at least 2 million Americans and kill 23,000 every year.

The health care system has woken up to this fact. Doctors are prescribing fewer antibiotics, and patients are being advised to stop demanding them for colds, sore throats, and other minor infections. Yet with all these efforts underway, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about half of all antibiotics prescribed in hospitals are still unnecessary.

How much worse would the resistance crisis be if people could walk into a pharmacy and buy antibiotics over the counter for a case of the sniffles? We can look to countries such as India, where these drugs are widely available without a prescription, to see how antibiotic overuse threatens human health. One of the most dangerous strains of resistant bacteria emerged in India just a few years ago and is now spreading to other countries, including ours.

Yet today, antibiotics are as freely available on America's industrial farms as they are in India's pharmacies. Domestic meat producers can feed antibiotics to chicken, cattle, pigs, and other livestock without any veterinary oversight required, often to make healthy animals grow faster and to allow them to live in cost-efficient yet overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

It's hardly any wonder that nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics are sold for U.S. livestock every year, while only 7.7 million pounds are used to treat sick people. And just as superbugs can spread from India to America, they can also make the much shorter trip from industrial farms into our kitchens and hospitals.

The overwhelming medical and scientific consensus is that antibiotic overuse on industrial farms threatens the public's health. The American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and Infectious Diseases Society of America -- our doctors -- have urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Congress to limit antibiotic use only for treating sick animals, not to boost meat and poultry production.

The good news is that the FDA is taking steps to give veterinarians more control of antibiotics on industrial farms. A new policy would require farmers to obtain the veterinary equivalent of a prescription to mix antibiotics with animal feed and water. The bad news is that there's a loophole that could allow veterinarians to order antibiotics with unlimited refills without ever visiting the farms.

The FDA needs to hear from you. Until March 12, it is accepting comments from the public regarding its proposed regulation. Urge the agency to close the loophole and to require real, meaningful veterinary oversight of antibiotic use. Tell them that just as a parent needs a doctor's prescription to treat their child, industrial farms should have a veterinary order to feed these drugs to their animals. Otherwise, we could end up in a world without effective antibiotics -- a world where we and our loved ones face lethal threats from common infections.