When the FDA announced this week that it was moving to limit the use of the antibiotic cephalosporin in farm animals, it sounded like it might actually be a meaningful step toward slowing the rate of development of bacterial resistance to antibiotics. But while it may do that for cephalosporin, it is not much more than a token gesture when it comes to preventing antibiotic resistance in general.
First, the new rule only eliminates the “off-label” (unapproved) use of cephalosporins – uses that shouldn’t have been happening anyway, such as using higher than recommended doses, using cephalosporin drugs intended for humans in animals, and using cephalosporin drugs indiscriminately to prevent disease. Veterinarians are still free to prescribe cephalosporins for animals when they think the drug is needed to treat disease.
More importantly, the new rule applies only to cephalosporins, which represent less than 1% of the antibiotics used in the agricultural industry. That’s why the FDA’s new ruling is just a token gesture. The meat-producing industry uses over 29 million pounds of antibiotics per year, most of which is penicillins and tetracyclines, not cephalosporins. These two antibiotics are routinely put in animal feed and water because they prevent disease outbreaks in animals grown under (sometimes) unsanitary conditions. The result is fatter animals and fatter profits. The FDA has wanted to restrict the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in the meat industry for decades, but always runs up against the meat industry lobby.
The meat-producing industry seems to be responding to the new ruling on cephalosporins with a great big yawn. Perhaps it knows that the impact of the ruling will be minor?
To be fair, the new FDA ruling could be seen as a first step in the right direction. It would be nice to see the FDA take the next big step and limit the indiscriminate use of all antibiotics in animal feed, and not just the 1% that no one cares about. I’m betting it won’t happen until the problem of bacterial resistance to antibiotics gets much worse.