Yesterday a group of activists, environmentalists and public health organizations (including the scaremongers at the Union of Concerned Scientists) petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to withdraw approval of seven classes of antibiotics used in animal agriculture. At the same time, a bill was introduced in Congress to ban the medicines. Opponents of the use of these livestock antibiotics argue that they increase the risk of bacteria developing resistance. But the players in this debate would do well to consider a recent editorial in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, which warned: “National and regional regulators have been buffeted by the winds of prejudice and perceptions, and the selective use of scientific data by many participants to promote their side of the debate.”

The science on this issue is far from clear. And so we see the familiar spectacle of activists in Europe employing the technophobic “precautionary principle” to promote a total ban. Dr. Ian Phillips of the University of London notes that this use of the precautionary principle “[s]et aside scientific evidence, and so made decisions about antibiotics that have in fact damaged health and not provided any benefits to human health.

Consider a recent article published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, which reviewed a large body of evidence both for and against using antibiotics in animal feed. It determined that “the potential harmful effects of bans are often ignored.” The article eventually found that “an independent examination of the facts, free from commercial or political influence, shows that the actual risk is extremely small and may be zero in many cases.”

The research also determined that banning some important antibiotics may harm human health:

An even more disturbing conclusion was that, if the banning of fluoroquinolones gave even a modest increase in the variance of microbial loads on chickens leaving the processing plant, it would create far more cases of human infection than cases of resistant infection that it might prevent.

Meanwhile, veterinary professors from the University of Illinois wrote in the Journal of Food Production:

We suggest that the role of food-producing animals in the origin and transmission of antimicrobial resistance and “foodborne” pathogens has been overestimated and overemphasized in the scientific literature.