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A 'superbug' fix? Agribusiness doesn't think so

Lester Lefkowitz | Stone | Getty Images

The massive overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals is often cited as a major reason for the rise in drug-resistant bacteria, or "superbugs." Now one economist is proposing a way to curtail the problem—but not everyone likes his idea.

For humans, overprescription of antibiotics to fight sometimes minor illnesses has contributed to the creation of deadly, drug-resistant bacterial strains. With animals, antibiotics overuse is even more prevalent: They're not only used to treat sick livestock but to make chickens, pigs and cattle gain weight more quickly.

The Food and Drug Administration last month issued new rules to curtail the proliferation of antibiotics in animals for production purposes over the next three years—but they are voluntary.

A much better enforcement policy, said economist Aidan Hollis of the University of Calgary, is implementing a monetary fee on all antibiotics used by the U.S. agriculture industry.

"The idea is to distinguish between the good use of antibiotics and the bad," said Hollis, who co-wrote a paper about the idea in the New England Journal of Medicine last month.

(Read more: Organic food and farm groups ask Obama to require GMO food labels)

Hollis didn't suggest an amount for the fee but said it could help ensure that antibiotics are used for treating sick animals while cutting back on uses that don't have anything to do with illness. He is working on a plan for how such fees would work—how it would be collected and who would pay it.

"There's no doubt it would add costs to the whole process of getting meat or poultry, but this is clearly a health issue that needs to be addressed," Hollis said.

But it's that extra cost that's a big problem with the idea, said Kelli Ludlum, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, an advocacy group for farmers and ranchers.

"The fees from health companies making the drugs get passed down to farmers," she said. "The drugs are already expensive, which is why farmers used them judiciously."

The vast majority of antibiotics in the U.S. go to animals, not people. Citing FDA figures, Hollis wrote that 51 tons of antibiotics are consumed daily in the United States. Eighty percent of them are used in agriculture and for the raising of fish and other sea life.

However, U.S. livestock have been getting antibiotics for decades—and not just to cure sickness or act as a preventative medicine. The FDA approved their use in the 1950s after studies showed that animals who got them in their feed put on more weight in less time than animals that didn't get the drugs.

(Read more: Where's the beef? Industry at crossroads)

That allowed farmers to produce cheaper livestock, especially considering that feed accounts for as much as 70 percent of the total cost of animal production. It also allowed for cheaper meat and poultry at the supermarket.

In the 1970s, a study claimed that the overuse of antibiotics in animals was helping to create drug resistant bacteria. The FDA then issued a ban on the nonmedical use of penicillin and tetracycline in animals, but the rule was never enforced.

"Antibiotics are rampant in our food supply," said Emelie Peine, a professor at the University of Puget Sound who focuses on global food issues. "If you're giving them to animals every day it's creating a huge health problem."

An estimated 23,000 Americans are dying each year from antibiotic-resistant infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC contends that drug-resistant bacteria in animals can remain on meat and spread to humans when meat is not handled or cooked properly. But on its website, the farm bureau states that "antibiotic use in animals has not been scientifically linked to increases in human antibiotic resistance."

"We're not saying it's not possible, but that it's an unlikely occurrence," said Ludlum.

Timothy Richards, a professor of agribusiness at Arizona State University, also questions some of the science behind antibiotics resistance. He said that more regulations or a tax would run the risk of harming the agriculture industry.

"You'd have to have the FDA come out and determine which animal is sick and which is not for antibiotic use," he said. "That's impossible to do."

Ludlum said that the new FDA rules—even without true enforcement—will eventually phase out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. "The companies making the drugs will indicate which ones are not available for growth promotion. Farmers will not be using them," she said.

Hollis said he's not sure what the future holds for his fee proposal. He said it's better than avoiding the issue or having a complete ban on antibiotics use in animals, as is done in some countries in Europe—reportedly with mixed results.

He did say in his paper that antibiotics are a "scarce resource," and his fee proposal could be used to help research and develop new and better drugs. "There's little money being used to find new bacteria resistant drugs, and that's a problem," he said.

(Read more: Mississippi drugmaker lays off 75, may owe state money)

For Richards, market dynamics would provide a better solution by "letting people follow labels and buy or not buy meats where antibiotics are used."

Producers that want to label their meat or poultry as antibiotic-free must submit documentation to the government stating that their livestock received no drugs. However, there isn't any verification or testing for those claims.

Peine said what may be best—along with stronger government oversight on antibiotics—is raising livestock differently.

"We've got them crowded on top of each other in dark farms for mass production," she said. "That's very unhealthy for them and us. They need to be raised outside so they can grow and thrive in natural surroundings."

—By CNBC's Mark Koba. Follow him on Twitter @MarkKobaCNBC.

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