Is the FDA about to ban antibiotics for cows? Maryn McKenna explains ...


There's been a flurry of headlines the past couple days about new FDA rules for antibiotic use in animals meant for the table. To get a better understanding of what's going on and what it means, I turned to my favorite Scary Disease Girl, Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug, a book about the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that evolve when we use too many antibiotics, too often, on both people and animals. Here's what she had to say:

Short version: Yes, the FDA is considering doing something; the guidelines the NYT talked about were actually published in June. No, they're not banning antibiotic use; what they're talking about is voluntary guidelines, not legislation or regulations. Yes, there is abundant science to support making this move; it's been clear for decades that antibiotic overuse in farming fosters the growth of drug-resistant organisms that affect humans. No, the agricultural industry does not agree.

And now, the long version ...

Antibiotic use in farming breaks down into three major categories. There's therapeutic use, giving antibiotics to sick animals to treat disease. (No one that I know of argues with that.)

There's prophylactic use, giving antibiotics to healthy animals to prevent them developing diseases.

And there's growth promotion: That's giving small doses of antibiotics to animals because it helps the animal put on weight faster, which if you're growing animals for the purposes of getting them to market weight and selling them, looks like an efficient goal.

Growth promotion—sometimes called subtherapeutic dosing or "for production purposes" in the FDA's very careful languag—has been around since the 1940s, when a couple of scientists at Lederle Labs wanted to find a use for the carbohydrate mash left over from manufacturing chlortetracycline, and decided to try it out as a chicken feed. It's been fully banned in the European Union for four years on evidence that those small doses contribute to the development of resistant bacteria in animals and the farm environment.

One of the chief drivers of the EU ban was a link between the use of a drug called avoparcin on farms, and the occurrence of the virulent hospital organism vancomycin-resistant Enterococci (VRE) in humans; avoparcin and the last-resort human drug vancomycin are very similar. When avoparcin was removed from use, VRE rates declined.

The FDA has been looking at growth promoting antibiotics since the 1970s, but it has never banned them, and it isn't proposing to do so now. What it wants, instead, is for agriculture to agree to two things: Voluntarily stop using using subtherapeutic growth-promoting dosing, and involve veterinarians in the administration of antibiotics to farm animals.

There's legislation in Congress, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, that would go much further, but the FDA is treading carefully and starting small. They may have tougher action in mind, though: Deputy FDA Commissiner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein said in testimony in June: "We have the regulatory mechanisms and the industry knows that. But we are also interested in what things can be done just voluntarily that they would do them. And I think it'll be interesting to see how the industry responds to this."

Maryn McKenna is a journalist and author and blogs about scary diseases and food policy at Superbug.

Image: Some rights reserved by foxypar4


  1. USA Today wrote an article yesterday about the effects of antibiotics on digestive bacteria.

    Would be interesting to see the results of a study of methane production in livestock raised using antibiotics for growth promotion compared to methane production in livestock raised without antibiotics – might be another reason to stop over-using antibiotics, in addition to preventing the development of resistant bacteria.

  2. BB’s “shocked cat” image would have been great in the background of this one. Where did our little feline friend go?

    1. Oh I see: you think they’ll strangle this gold-egg-laying goose, too.
      I don’t. The veterinarians know better than to do or allow that to happen.
      People DO learn, you know.

  3. Sorry, Ugly Canuck, but we humans are all too capable of thinking “if I don’t, the next guy will” and going along with the unsavory plan. It’s the rancher afraid of losing out to the (capital C) Competition, the veterinarian afraid a less ethical vet will take his place, and so on.

    Some really are amoral, but some think they are trapped in a moral dilemma.

    1. “Sorry, Ugly Canuck, but we humans are all too capable of thinking “if I don’t, the next guy will” and going along with the unsavory plan. It’s the rancher afraid of losing out to the (capital C) Competition, the veterinarian afraid a less ethical vet will take his place, and so on.”

      This is why professions have organizations to manage self-regulation. It’s a solved problem. It’s just the solution needs implementing.

  4. Most Americans don’t even realize that the FDA has very little power over their food.

    According to the courts, the FDA doesn’t even have the authority to shut down slaughterhouses which repeatedly cause severe disease outbreaks.

    If you want safe food, it’s in your own hands. The FDA is too impotent to help you.

  5. “No, they’re not banning antibiotic use; what they’re talking about is voluntary guidelines…”
    So basically it’s just a lot of arm waving, hot air and bullshit and nothing is going to change.

  6. Considering the meat industry forces farmers into debt slavery and bankrupts them if they even so much as agree to an on camera interview, I’m sure the industry veterinarians will be given free reign to change production methods to suit the health of the animals.


    1. It’s not just the ranchers that are the industry’s bitch. Some state legislatures have seriously tabled laws that would make it a felony to “slander” the meat industry, and we all know how wide a net corporations cast with regards to what is slandering their business.

      That I am aware of none have passed to date, but they bought enough power to have such a thing brought to debate with a straight face and sincere intention to try and pass it.

      Raise a damn finger against them and they will destroy you.

      If the meat folks weren’t bad enough, want to grow a commodity crop like corn or soybeans? It’s de-facto illegal to grow seed that isn’t Monsanto’s. If they don’t nail you for your neighbor’s pollen landing in your fields (which is your problem, and you are legally responsible for it), they just make baseless claims that you’re illegally using their seed and throw money at the case until you drown under the cost of your defense. The people who fight usually just end up having to pay their defense bill plus the settlement they end up agreeing to when they can’t afford to struggle anymore.

      Food companies own the FDA and they own each and every American citizen, until they put hand to ballot to fix the problem.

  7. And see that funky tongue? That’s what they use to make “all natural” melatonin supplements. Don’t take them.

  8. Voluntary guidelines are meaningless. The FDA has become industry’s bitch. Even with a dozen existing antibiotics to treat bovine respiratory disease, Stephen Sundlof was willing to overrule the FDA’s own scientists to approve cefquinome in 2007, risking the whole emerging fourth-generation of cephalosporins, and the third generation at the same time. The group Keep Antibiotics Working has compiled 29 pages worth of coverage of the story in the mainstream media, available here:

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