I think you have to look at this new FDA announcement, that they will seek “voluntary” limits for antibiotics in animal feed, must be seen in a few different contexts. First, here’s Ezra Klein convincing me about the importance of this issue:
This might not seem like a huge deal to you. But it is. And it gets to one of my favorite scary statistics: 70 percent of the antibiotics used in this country — 70 percent! — go into livestock production. And that’s before you even get to the antibiotics that are used on animals who actually fall ill.
The reason is simple enough: If we didn’t pump our livestock full of antibiotics, they would get sick. They are, after all, packed into dim and dirty enclosures. They’re stacked on top of one another. And they’re being fed food they didn’t evolve to eat. All of this makes animals sick. But rather than raise them in a way that doesn’t make them sick, but costs somewhat more, we just keep them on constant doses of antibiotics.
And then we eat them. Which means we get constant, low-grade doses of these antibiotics. Which means common bacteria get constant, low-grade doses of these antibiotics. And there’s mounting evidence that this background exposure to antibiotics is contributing to the startling rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The drugs also promote rapid weight gain in farm animals. Because we can’t just wait around for cows and chickens to grow! Time is money!
If agribusiness couldn’t fill their livestock with drugs, they would have to provide more humane living standards. And this would have a positive impact on our health, not just our waistlines (healthier food is healthier food, so to speak) but on the ability to fight increasingly drug-resistant bacteria.
But instead of setting clear limits, or just banning multiple types of antibiotics for use in livestock (as this legislation from Louise Slaughter would do), the FDA just prescribed “voluntary limits.” Why? Because they’ve been trying to ban antibiotics in livestock since 1977. And agribusiness along with pharmaceutical companies lobby against it, and it doesn’t happen. So we’re reduced to begging drugmakers to stop facilitating the fact that the hamburger on our plates is filled with penicillin and tetracycline.
A couple additional points here. Remember the article last week about the muzzling of the FDA? That almost certainly plays a role. Left to their own devices, perhaps FDA would have banned certain drugs. But Cass Sunstein prefers “nudges” to industry, in the hopes that they will come to their senses and restore our nation’s common purpose. It never works out that way, but oh well. The Administration may not have let the FDA do anything if it wasn’t for a successful lawsuit that forced the FDA to create regulations to deal with the effects of massive antibiotic use in farming. The government may appeal that decision, but in the meantime, they’ve gone with this voluntary order.
And this speaks to a larger problem with American liberalism in the 21st century. Eric Alterman writes about that problem, and notes that less than one in seven Americans trust the government “to do what’s right almost always or most of the time.” I would argue that this is one of the reasons. It’s not that Americans know now, or will ever know, the ins and outs of FDA antibiotic policy. It’s that they do know the power that industry holds over the political process. Democrats went into a crouch about 40 years ago, pleading that they weren’t interested in “command and control” solutions. But government has to play the role of putting the public interest ahead of narrow fiduciary interests of particular industries. The industries will never do that themselves. People think that government doesn’t work because government doesn’t work. The side that actually believes in government is prone to taking half-measures and incremental steps that always fail to solve the core problem. And people try to put the best face on it, as a “step in the right direction.” But the problems linger, whether in health care or the financial industry or whatever else. And faith in institutions vanishes. For a liberal project supposed to stand with the need for the biggest political institution, the government, to do for the country what individuals cannot do by themselves, that’s an enormous problem.