The Food and Drug Administration has finally called on drug companies to limit the use of antibiotics in farm animals, a practice that is contributing to the surge in dangerous, drug-resistant bacteria.
Penicillin and other antibiotics are routinely mixed with animal feed make animals grow faster, get bigger, and avoid the numerous diseases that are rife at factory farms. But this routine use leads to the growth of antibiotic-resistant germs that can be passed on to humans.
Powerful factory farm lobbies continue to argue that these drugs are a key part of modern meat production, thus thwarting efforts from the FDA to control them. The new FDA guidelines recommend that antibiotics be used “judiciously,” or only when necessary to keep animals healthy. The agency also wants to require a veterinarian to prescribe the drugs, which can currently be purchased over-the-counter by farmers. The FDA says:
Antimicrobial resistance occurs when bacteria or other microbes develop the ability to resist the effects of a drug. Once this occurs, a drug may no longer be as effective in treating various illnesses or infections. Because it is well established that all uses of antimicrobial drugs, in both humans and animals, contribute to the development of antimicrobial resistance, it is important to use these drugs only when medically necessary.
The draft recommendations by the FDA are not mandatory. The agency is, for example, asking drug manufacturers’ to stop labeling their antibiotics as being for the purposes of weight gain and accelerated growth.
Many public health advocates say they do not trust the drug industry to voluntarily restrict its own products. But the FDA explains that a formal ban would require individual hearings for each drug, which could take decades.
“The process we would have to go through is a formal hearing process, product-by-product that is extremely cumbersome,” said Mike Taylor, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods. “There’s no point in going through those legalistic proceedings when companies are willing to make this shift voluntarily.”
But Margaret Mellon, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, does not believe the drug and factory farm industries will seriously change their ways:
We have no reason to believe that the veterinary pharmaceutical industry—which, to date, has rarely even acknowledged that antibiotic resistance is a serious public health issue—will cooperate with the agency on a plan that could reduce its profits.
… Unfortunately, the process will also be secret. Companies will have three months to submit voluntary plans and three years to implement them. During this entire time, the public will be kept in the dark. It could be three to four years before anyone knows how well the program is working.
Ultimately, if antibiotic use is reduced only marginally or not at all much time and taxpayer dollars will have been wasted.
The agency doesn’t need to embark on this novel but very risky experiment in relying on companies to police their own products. It has—and should have relied upon—its authority under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to cancel unsafe uses of drugs.
An estimated 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. wind up on animal farms. And while the factory farms argue that pumping these drugs into the animals is harmless to humans, FDA officials say the scientific literature supports the role that indiscriminate use of antibiotics plays in reducing the effectiveness of antibiotics in humans.
“We think the science is very solid to support this effort to address these issues,” Taylor said.
The World Health Organization is one of the many institutions warning that as bacteria grow more resistant, new and more deadly forms of malaria, staph and other infections that were once easily treatable have emerged across the globe, and that overuse of antibiotics in both animals and humans has contributed to the problem.
A BBC news team recently reported on the overuse of antibiotics in the U.K., where regulations are, in fact, considerably stricter than the U.S. Here’s the video. (The reference to MRSA is to an increasingly drug-resistant staph infection called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.)