Curbing Antibiotics in Livestock Is Good for You
Your meat is about to get more expensive. That’s a good thing.
After much debate, the Food and Drug Administration is moving to curb the widespread use of low-dose antibiotics in livestock. For reasons that we don’t fully understand, antibiotics cause livestock to grow larger, which means more meat per pig. Unsurprisingly, a lot of farmers use them. But over the next three years, the FDA will require farmers to get a prescription from a veterinarian to use them, meaning that antibiotics will still be used to treat sick animals -- but not to make healthy ones meatier.
Though I’ve had my quarrels with the FDA on many issues, I think this is the right move. Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem that endangers many of the medical miracles we now take for granted. Antibiotics are effectively a scarce resource; we should be husbanding them to cure disease, not to make our steak 15 percent cheaper.
That said, don’t think that this solves the problem. When I wrote a piece about antibiotic resistance for the Atlantic, I expected to get easy quotes from experts on the scurrilous waste of feeding penicillin to pigs. But none of the experts I talked to were willing to say that this was a huge part of the antibiotic-resistance problem. Most resistance isn’t evolving on farms, where very few of us spend any time; to be sure, we eat meat from those farms, but cooking should kill off most of the resistant bacteria. Most cases of antibiotic-resistant bacteria come from hospitals, people who have been in hospitals, or tuberculosis patients who stop taking their drugs as soon as they feel better.
Banning overuse in animals remains a good idea, because antibiotics are literally one of the most valuable resources we have, and once we lose them, there’s no way to get them back. But that is the barest beginning, not the end, of the battle against bacterial resistance.