A long-simmering debate over the use of antibiotics in farm animals is heating up as a result of new concerns about anthrax and other potential forms of bioterrorism in the U.S.

As reported in this month's Regulatory Watch column (see page 24), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is urging pharmaceutical manufacturer Bayer A.G. to remove the animal antibiotic Baytril from the market on the grounds that it eventually may compromise the ability of Cipro, a sister antibiotic, to fight anthrax in people.

Days after FDA made its request, a coalition of health, consumer and environmental groups put additional pressure on Bayer with the launch of "Keep Antibiotics Working: The Campaign to End Antibiotic Overuse." The coalition's concern stems from a fairly simple principle: If antibiotics are overused, the bacteria they target eventually develop the ability to resist them. Think of it as the dark side of Darwinism.

Since political/public relations battles of this order tend to play out in predictable ways, it was only a matter of time before the Coalition on Animal Health (CAH), which represents the red meat and poultry industries, responded to the "Keep Antibiotics Working" campaign. In a lengthy and compelling statement, CAH argued "it is misleading and inaccurate to suggest that the use of animal antibiotics would decrease the effectiveness of human antibiotics, like Cipro¿ur industry has adopted prudent use guidelines, developed by the American Veterinary Medical Association, in cooperation with the FDA, CDC, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and others to ensure [antibiotic] products are used judiciously."

CAH further argued that restricting the use of preventative antibiotics would only lead to greater use of antibiotics later, once increasing numbers of animals began falling ill.

Most importantly, CAH called for increased surveillance. "We have asked FDA to do more to support USDA's efforts to enhance the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring Program (NARMS)," the statement reads. "We need a robust surveillance program so that we can identify the true level of potential exposure to resistant food-borne pathogens and therefore more accurately assess the potential human impact."

Although the "Keep Antibiotics Working" coalition cited "overwhelming scientific evidence" that bacteria are developing antibiotic resistance as a result of antibiotic use in animal agriculture, it likewise acknowledged the "inadequacy of public health monitoring and surveillance programs in the United States."

Since both interests concede that current monitoring and surveillance programs are inadequate, it's a good bet that they are. FDA should get moving. Bioterrorism isn't merely a threat anymore, it's a reality. The American landscape is changing too quickly these days for issues like this to languish on the back burner.