Antibiotics are a big reason why meat is so plentiful and cheap in this country, but using those drugs just to enable more cows, pigs and chickens to grow larger faster is hardly worth the trade-off: increasing numbers of humans dying because the drugs that once cured their bacterial infections are no longer working.
Whether humans take antibiotics directly, such as when their doctors prescribe them, or indirectly through the meat they eat, they can only take so much of them before they stop working: The microbes that cause their infections become resistant to the drugs. That’s why good doctors don’t prescribe antibiotics at the drop of a hat. It’s also why farmers shouldn’t be allowed to give their animals the same antibiotics that humans use unless they’re genuinely sick and no alternative drugs exist.
The Food and Drug Administration recognized this and announced a policy to rein in the practice in April 2012, but implementation was delayed. This week, it asked drug companies to voluntarily comply with the restriction by selling only to farmers whose animals were sick, and one of the biggest agreed to do so. But whether other pharmaceutical makers or farmers, who would have to get prescriptions from their vets under the new rules before getting antibiotics, cooperate remains to be seen.
The FDA needs to monitor the situation carefully and adjust accordingly. If it takes longer for these animals to reach maturity, and fewer of them make it to that stage, so be it. Better to pay higher prices and eat meat less often than to consume something that can kill you.