Wednesday's announcement that federal drug regulators will now require U.S. farmers and ranchers to limit their use of certain antibiotics in cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys is a long overdue positive ruling that should help reduce the growing threat that antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections pose to humans. Welcome as the edict is, it does not go far enough. Additional restrictions or, preferably, bans on their use are necessary to properly safeguard public health.
The newly restricted antibiotics belong to a widely prescribed class of drugs called cephalosporins, which are sold under brand names such as Keflex and Cefzil as well as in generic form. The class of drugs has proved to be an effective tool in combating human illness, but their efficacy is increasingly undermined by drug-resistant bacteria.
The antibiotics are used to treat to treat pneumonia, strep throat and urinary and skin infections in people of all ages, and are especially popular among pediatricians. Surgeons also proscribe them prophylactically before surgery. Though the cephalosporins are not used as widely in livestock as some other antibiotics, that does not mitigate the harm they can cause.
Microbiologists say any utilization in livestock contributes to the development of drug-resistant bacteria. That, in turn, has reduced the number of effective medications in the physician's arsenal in the fight against illness. Indeed, some bacterial infections now are immune to all but one or a couple of medications. The resultant toll on human life is significant. Public health experts and doctors, in fact, say indiscriminate use of antibiotics in livestock has contributed to the deaths of thousands of people from drug-resistant infections.
It's not the first time that the FDA has restricted antibiotic use in livestock. It previously banned the use of fluroquinolones like Cipro. Still, past and present restrictions do not go far enough. Guidelines to strictly control or end the use of penicillin and tetracycline, for example, have yet to be approved.
Predictably, there is resistance to such regulation. Livestock producers, pharmaceutical manufacturers and some veterinary groups, none of which is shy about using lobbyists or deep pockets to make its point, continue to resist change.
Those groups argue, among other things, that the danger to humans from overuse of antibiotics in livestock, while real, has been overblown. The rise in antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" and the growing toll of serious illnesses and deaths they cause in the general population defeats that argument.
Federal regulators should limit the use of antibiotics to animals that are ill, and continue to push for bans on the use of the drugs in animals to promote growth or to prevent illnesses that are the result of unsanitary living conditions. Wednesday's announcement is a step in that direction, but it is a small one. More stringent measures are needed to serve the public interest.