Why did the FDA make its new antibiotic restrictions voluntary instead of mandatory?

Were you as delighted as I was when I read the headline that the Food and Drug Administration has a new policy prohibiting the use of antibiotics to speed the growth of pigs and other animals cultivated for human consumption? Trace antibiotics in the animals we eat have contributed to the increasing resistance of bacteria to the antibiotics we use to treatment infections. The new policy forbids use of antibiotics as growth stimulants and also requires farmers to get prescriptions each and every time they want to treat a sick animal with antibiotics.

On the surface it looks like a great victory for every American because it is going to make all of us safer and less likely to die in an illness. The New York Times version of the announcement points out that two million people fall sick and 23,000 die every year from anti-biotic resistant infections. CNN reports that in April the FDA said that 81% of all the raw ground turkey the agency tested was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Currently every hospital patient encounters the danger of opportunistic infections that don’t respond to antibiotics.

Every one of the 15 news reports I read hail it as big news: “major new policy,” ”broad measures” and “sweeping plan” are some of the descriptions of the FDA action.

But before we break out the champagne, let’s read the fine print: It’s all voluntary.

Virtually all the news stories bury this fact or downplay it.  For example, the Times says that, based on comments made during the discussion period that proceeds all federal regulation, rules and advisories, the FDA was confident that drug companies would comply (which I suppose means refusing to sell antibiotics to farmers without prescriptions for specific animals).

Then there’s the matter of a three-year phase-in period. No one has bothered to explain why anyone would need three years to implement this plan: just stop doing it, right away.

As some reports have noted, health officials have warned about the overuse of antibiotics leading to increased resistance since the 1970’s. In other words after 40 years of warnings, studies, discussions and negotiations regarding a major public health challenge, the best we can come up with is a voluntary plan.

Have no doubts about it: Some drug company somewhere in the world will continue to sell this stuff to farmers and farmers will still use it.

If the federal government were really serious about lowering the amount of antibiotics humans ingest in their food and water, it would have set mandatory regulations that took effect within 30 days. But such an action would take a cash stream from drug manufacturers and raise the cost of raising domesticated animals. Farmers and meat processors would make less money and consumers would likely pay a little more for their ground round and chicken nuggets.  It’s worth it, though, as the eradication of the use of antibiotics will make everyone in the United States (and the world) safer from the threat of contracting a life-threatening infection every time they have an operation and safer from the risk of an epidemic of virulent and untreatable infections.

Industry pressures most assuredly caused the wishy-washy action of asking drug makers to resist the urge to make more money. The news behind the news then is that once again, our government has compromised the health, safety and economic well-being of its citizens to enable a small group of companies to continue making money. The additional illnesses and deaths are paid for by all of society, bringing down the costs or raising the profits for a small segment of society.  It’s another example of shifting of the costs from companies to society at large, and it demonstrates once again that unfettered free market capitalism does not lead to the greatest good for the most people.

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