It’s no secret that America has a drug problem—so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that our livestock have one as well. Antibiotics are a major part of the conventional meat industry, and the drugs aren’t just used to treat sick animals—they’re also given regularly in feed to help growth promotion of pigs, chickens and cattle. According to a recent study by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), some 80% of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in farm animals, not in human beings, and 90% of that amount is dispensed through feed or water. All those drugs can help lead to the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and those hard to treat bugs in turn can infect human beings. Some 100,000 Americans die each year from hospital-acquired infections that are resistant to most antibiotics. Antibiotics are a limited resource—the more they’re used, the faster bacteria will evolve to beat them—and by using so many of our drugs on farms rather than the hospital, we may be wasting them.
So public health advocates have been pushing for years to get the government to restrict the use of human antibiotics in farm animals—at least for non-therapeutic purposes. But the meat industry has long opposed any regulations on drug use, claiming that antibiotic-resistant bacteria have far more to do with overuse in human beings than on the farm. Given the political power of the ag lobby, it shouldn’t be surprising that they’ve usually won those battles.
But the tide may be turning. On January 4, the FDA announced that farmers and ranchers had to restrict their use of a class of antibiotics known as cephalosporins—commonly used in humans to treat strep throat and bronchitis—in cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys because those habits may have helped lead to the rise of resistant bacteria.
From the FDA’s announcement:Antimicrobial drugs are important for treating disease in both humans and animals. This new order takes into consideration the substantial public comment FDA received on a similar order that it issued in 2008, but revoked prior to implementation.
FDA is taking this action to preserve the effectiveness of cephalosporin drugs for treating disease in humans. Prohibiting these uses is intended to reduce the risk of cephalosporin resistance in certain bacterial pathogens.The new rules don’t prohibit all use of the antibiotics in animals—just the use of the drugs at unapproved dose levels, or for disease prevention, rather than actively treating sick animals. But that’s still enough to make long-time advocates of reducing antibiotics in animals applaud. From Laura Rogers, the project director of the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming:We applaud FDA’s move. This restriction is a victory for human health, as it will help ensure we can still rely on cephalosporins to treat life-threatening infections today and in the future.Today’s action is a good first step, and we encourage FDA to issue guidelines expeditiously that restrict the overuse and misuse of other critical antibiotics on industrial farms.This rule is a long time coming—the FDA initially proposed its cephalosporin restrictions in 2008, only to withdraw the rules because of fierce opposition from farmers and ranchers. The news rules are less restrictive than the ones proposed nearly four years ago, allowing veterinarians to keep using the drugs to treat illnesses in animals as long as they hold follow dosage guidelines. But for those who worry about preserving antibiotics for use in people—not just farm animals—the FDA rules are a good start.
Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.