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.
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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."