A couple of articles I saw in the NYTimes recently caught my eye; both deal with the concern over antibiotic resistant bacteria and their connection to non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on farms (essentially their use as a feed additive to promote rapid growth). The first was a passionate call for swift passage and implementation of controls on the use of antibiotics on farms for non-therapeutic uses. The second article pointed out how a lack of data on how antibiotics are used in farms has kept scientists from verifying claims that feeding antibiotics to livestock has caused the explosion in antibiotic resistant bacteria in meat and infecting humans. Although the overall quantity of antibiotics destined for livestock operations is known (about 80% of antibiotics sold in the US annually go to livestock), there is no detailed information on how the antibiotics are used, which drugs are used and few data points on the amount of antibiotic resistant bacteria in meat. The article also mentions that the FDA and other agencies overseeing agriculture and drugs have been slow to pass more stringent regulations in part because of the strong agricultural lobby. Given the current lack of proof that agricultural use of antibiotics is directly fuelling the explosion in antibiotic resistant bacteria, though, government agencies have a weak argument for passing a regulation targeting the use of antibiotics for livestock.
I think these two articles illustrate a constant dilemma in science policy making: Should we make policies to address an impending crisis before we have data to guide our decision or wait for scientists to research the issue? In this case the impending crisis is an even further growth in the number and prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria. When a bacteria adapts to be resistant to antibiotics, our ability to fight even mundane illnesses is jeopardized. Yet, this isn’t a battle we want to get wrong. Without knowledge of how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics on the farm and then how they are transmitted to humans, new legislation may not solve the problem. It is possible that banning non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock is not enough, especially if the existing bacteria remain on farms. So, are we willing to risk getting it wrong? Or is the problem too severe to wait?