FDA finalizes new policy calling for agricultural, pharmaceutical industries to submit to voluntary standards intended to restrict use of antibiotics in farm animals to treating illness; critics worry deal will do little to curb abuse

NORFOLK, Virginia , December 30, 2013 () – FOR YEARS, pigs and chickens have had an easier time scoring antibiotics than most humans sniffling and sneezing and coughing in doctors' offices.

Physicians, rightfully worried about overuse of bacteria- zappers, have grown more selective in writing prescriptions. Overuse leads to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bugs that, over time, can overwhelm our immune systems - and the arsenal of wonder drugs available to save us.

For farm animals, though, it's been a pharmapalooza. The agricultural industry, with the eager assistance of drug companies, has been pouring antibiotics into livestock feed and drinking water.

The doses have little to do with reducing disease and everything to do with increasing profits.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear, antibiotics cause pigs, chickens and cows to grow more quickly - lowering the costs of feeding and shortening the time it takes to get them to market.

But silos full of research have shown that the practice isn't good for people, who increasingly face superbugs that conventional antibiotics can't fight.

After years of foot-dragging, the Food and Drug Administration is finally taking steps to battle the indiscriminate use of antibiotics on factory farms.

Under a new policy finalized this month, the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries say they'll submit to voluntary standards designed to restrict the use of antiobiotics to treating illness.

Former FDA commissioner David Kessler, a respected voice on the subject, says the policy is a "significant first step ... in changing widespread and long-entrenched industry practices."

But many critics are understandably wary of the voluntary nature of the deal, which will require greater involvement from veterinarians. The fear is that overuse will continue, under the guise of treating illnesses that may not be present.

There's a large dose of trust in the agreement, and skeptics have good reason to question whether that trust has been earned. They're pushing for more precise measurements of a reduction in antiobiotic use, with a swift shift to mandatory compliance if the agriculture and pharmaceutical industries don't change their ways.

Supporters of the measure, including some researchers who called attention to the dangers of antibiotic overuse decades ago, say the voluntary policy is likely to bring about change more quickly.

If those hopes aren't fulfilled, though, Congress and the FDA need to write a new prescription promptly.

At least 2 million Americans fall ill and 23,000 die from exposure to antibiotic-resistant infections each year, The New York Times reports. Those numbers can't be allowed to grow.
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