One of the profound blessings in the age of modern medicine is that, when infection sets in, doctors can draw upon an array of antibiotics to knock the germs for a loop. Just imagine how it would have been for our ancestors, for whom a simple cut or bad tooth could mean "blood poisoning" and death.
The assumption has been that those times are gone for good. But medical scientists warn of what could become a grim reprise of sorts. They say that heavy reliance on antibiotics, especially in the mass production of farm animals, could result in those drugs losing their potency to combat infections among people.
The Associated Press quoted Duke University's Dr. Vance Fowler, an infectious disease specialist, on the threat from antibiotics overuse: "This is a living, breathing problem; it's the big bad wolf, and it's knocking at our door." Precautions, it seems, are much in order.
But antibiotics wouldn't be used in factory farming if they didn't help the bottom line. Cutting back on the use of such drugs is not an idea greeted with much enthusiasm in corporate farming circles. Nor can pharmaceutical companies be counted upon to discourage the use of antibiotics in the raising of cattle, hogs and poultry.
There's something to the argument that satisfying Americans' demand for relatively cheap and plentiful meat and dairy products requires a high degree of medical intervention to keep herds and flocks healthy. The animals are raised in conditions that make them susceptible to disease. Antibiotics in their feed ward off illness and also can make them grow faster.
Yet widespread use of the medicines has given rise to drug-resistant bacteria strains as the organisms adapt to their environment. Agricultural use accounts for 70 percent of the country's antibiotic consumption, and drug-resistant germs that have evolved in response to the prevalence of antibiotics in all settings were blamed in 2008 for 65,000 human deaths.
Are people in this country and others where industrial-scale livestock farming is practiced ready to downsize their appetites for meat, or to pay more for meat that's raised under less stressful conditions? Perhaps as the toll rises from infections that no medicine can halt, some of our food consumption habits might change for the better.
But a surer path toward addressing this problem would be through regulation. Antibiotics should be available to treat animals that are sick, but the kind of dosing that's routine on many farms could be limited or barred. Congress needs to pay close attention to this issue, lest the country slip into what the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Thomas Frieden, warns could become a "post-antibiotic era."