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All but the smoking gun

Updated: August 3, 2011 6:50PM

It’s an idea that sounds reasonable at first.

The U.S. House Appropriations Committee recently passed an amendment to an agriculture spending bill that would require the Food and Drug Administration to base its regulations on “hard science.”

In other words, the agency would not be allowed to place restrictions on a food ingredient or substance unless it could demonstrate that substance “is more harmful to users than a product that does not contain” it.

The measure was introduced by a Montana legislator who felt the FDA shouldn’t be allowed to limit the use of antibiotics in livestock without concrete evidence that these drugs promote antibiotic resistance in people.

He has a point.

No one has documented a case in which the inability to treat a human successfully with antibiotics could be directly linked to the use of antibiotics in animals.

But decades of studies have shown a link between the overuse of antibiotics and the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

It’s not a stretch, then, to think that restricting farmers from dosing their livestock with antibiotics just to fatten them up would slow the proliferation of so-called “superbugs” when one considers that an estimated 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are fed to farm animals.

Yet, the proposed legislation would tie the FDA’s hands.

In addition, the “hard science” amendment would limit the FDA’s ability to regulate ingredients in cigarettes that, while not cancer-causing agents, have been shown to either encourage people to start smoking or make it harder for them to quit.

Naturally, we’d love it if there were a smoking gun in every case to prove that something is a legitimate public health threat.

But hard science sometimes produces so much circumstantial evidence that a smoking gun is hardly necessary.

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