Whereas The Jungle made people sick to the stomachs figuratively, people were actually becoming ill from harmful ingredients in food and drugs. Notably, unsafe preservatives in meat sickened American soldiers in the Spanish-American War. In addition, the increasing number of people who became addicted to medicines that had no scientific basis provided the motivation for the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The law made it illegal to manufacture, sell, or transport adulterated or misbranded food and drugs, it required habit-forming drugs (like alcohol and morphine) to carry labels, and it mandated the need to get prescriptions to obtain other specified drugs. The act also created the Food and Drug Administration to carry out the law.
Despite the public health goals of these 1906 reforms, the food and drug industries resisted the regulations until the public’s overwhelming support convinced Congress to act. Similarly, the FDA’s recommendations on antibiotic use come after years of opposition turned into acceptance. In fact, factory farm companies and drug makers worked with the FDA in recent years as it prepared the guidelines, and some companies have already stopped using the targeted antibiotics.
The antibiotics regulations have therefore faced the greatest criticism from outside the business community. Health, consumer, and environmental groups who think the government should take more assertive action have expressed dissatisfaction. The voluntary nature of the guidelines means some companies can continue their current practices, and the FDA has limited enforcement power to make them change. Although the FDA has asked pharmaceutical companies to change the labels on certain antibiotics to eliminate statements approving of the drugs for growth purposes, companies can continue to use the antibiotics in question by simply saying they are being used for disease prevention rather than growth promotion. The new rule requiring a veterinarian’s prescription for using the antibiotics to treat or prevent specific diseases also seems ineffectual. Moreover, the FDA’s recommendations are limited in scope; the restrictions only apply to antibiotics that are also used to treat humans. Farmers are still allowed to use non-human antibiotics freely.
While the concerns are valid, the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act show that creating new regulations is often the start, not the end, of the regulatory process. Both 1906 laws have been strengthened multiple times with support from Democrats and Republicans. Thus, it is not the power, or lack thereof, of the recommendations that is concerning, but the timing. It took years of people being sickened or killed by harmful food and drugs before the 1906 laws were passed, and it took the creation of superbugs that are already killing thousands of people a year to get the government to set limits on giving antibiotics to livestock.
The reluctance to regulate the food and drug industries is in keeping with free market ideology. In opposing the 1906 laws, it could be argued that an individual can avoid the risks of consuming contaminated meat and addictive drugs by not buying them. However, drug-resistant bacteria threaten an individual regardless of his or her economic activity. To deny the government the right to regulate business practices that endanger the lives of all would be to follow the purely free market ideology to the death, which is the opposite of free market supporters’ intentions. Therefore, since the government’s regulation of threats to public health is inevitable, it should begin before the death count. In this context, the FDA’s recent action isn’t a win for liberals or conservatives, but a win for humanity, assuming it’s not too late.
Are the FDA’s voluntary guidelines sufficient? Or should the government take stronger action? Leave a comment.