Describing the routine use of antibiotics in meat and poultry production as a "serious threat to public health," the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2010 called on livestock operations to voluntarily reduce their reliance on the medications. But an FDA report this month indicates that, so far, the results are unimpressive: Antibiotic sales to livestock operations rose in 2011, rather than falling.
It is unclear why the numbers went up — perhaps there were simply more animals — and in fact, new legislation seeks to require better information on this score. But at a minimum, it appears that it's not enough simply to ask the industry to change its ways.
The routine use of low doses of antibiotics on perfectly healthy animals helps prevent disease from sweeping through crowded livestock operations and is a low-cost way to promote animal growth. Little wonder that 29.9 million pounds of the drugs were sold to meat and poultry producers in 2011.
The danger isn't that Americans are eating infected meat or ingesting antibiotics, which must be cleared from the animal's system before slaughter. It's that this routine, low-level administration of medications gives rise to so-called superbugs that can withstand common antibiotics, many of which are also important for human use.