Should Farmers Pay More for Antibiotics?

CC BY 2.0. Flickr user Hans Gruber

As many consumer advocates and health experts are calling for bans, University of Calgary's Aidan Hollis is proposing an alternative way to curb the over-use of antibiotic drugs in livestock. The professor of economics thinks we should raise the cost for non-human use.

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration asked pharmaceutical makers to change the labels on their antibiotics, a voluntary measure the agency hopes will reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock. About 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to livestock, encouraging the growth of drug-resistant bacteria and posing a threat to human health.

However, many say the FDA's measure doesn't go far enough and will do little to actually decrease the practice of feeding antibiotics to animals to promote growth. "Public safety is the F.D.A.'s job, and they’re doing it badly," writes Mark Bittman. "What’s needed here is a drastic reduction in the use of antibiotics, now, and few people think these recommendations are going to do that." Consumer's Union is urging the FDA to ban all use of antibiotics in livestock except for the treatment of sick animals.

Hollis, on the other hand, argues that charging a use-fee would be a more effective tool for reducing use. He writes in The New England Journal of Medicine that a fee "would deter low-value uses of antibiotics," while at the same time raise revenues that could be devoted to developing new antibiotics.

This approach begs the question: how much should a use-fee cost? Hollis likens this fee to the royalties paid by oil companies and the logging industry. However, if there's enough profit to be made, these fees don't always compensate for the damage logging and drilling do to the environment. The use-fee on antibiotics for livestock would need to be high enough to make prophylactic use a bad investment.

Perhaps the most interesting angle to his argument is that such a measure could reach across national borders. While the U.S. has made voluntary recommendations, Canada has no such equivalent, and the European Union bans the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. Hollis sees a more global solution:

"Resistant bacteria do not respect national borders. Although the United States would benefit from imposing user fees on its own, an even better approach would be an international treaty to recognize the fragility of our common antibiotic resources and to impose user fees to be collected by national governments."