FDA finally addresses problem of antibiotic overuse by meat industry — sort of

Back in September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report connecting the use of antibiotics in livestock to antibiotic resistance in humans. It was an important step in turning science into action. Although human use and misuse of antibiotics and the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitals are important parts of the puzzle of antibiotic resistance, the massive use of antibiotics by the agricultural industry also plays a key role. In fact, the vast majority of antibiotics used in the United States are used by animals. (Reasonable estimates range as high as 80%.)

What's more, the vast majority of that antibiotic use has nothing to do with the health of the animals. The antibiotics have the side effect of promoting weight gain. Important drugs like penicillin and tetracycline are regularly doled out to cows and pigs and chickens as part of their daily feed in order to make them fatter — a practice which has been shown to directly reduce those drugs' effectiveness at treating actual illness in humans. Today, the FDA announced that it plans to change this ... but there are problems.

The FDA is asking drug companies to remove the growth-promotion claims from antibiotic labels — a move that would make the drugs available only with a prescription. Theoretically, at least, that should mean farmers wouldn't be able to get a hold of them without actually having a sick animal diagnosed by a vet.

The holes in the plan should be readily apparent. For one thing, the labeling change is just voluntary. Pharmaceutical companies have three months to let the FDA know whether or not they plan on complying with the request. It will be interesting to see how many do. The other lingering question: Would a label change actually make it more difficult for farmers to use antibiotics for weight gain purposes? It doesn't seem to take into account the existence of online, no-prescription-necessary pharmacies, nor, for that matter, the much more old-fashioned loophole of a friendly vet who is willing to look the other way.

Maryn McKenna is the writer I trust to get the analysis right on issues of antibiotic resistance and farming. As of this writing, she's still in the process of reporting and hasn't yet posted on the FDA's new stance, but you'll want to keep an eye on her blog, Superbug, for updates.

EDIT: It's worth noting, the FDA's Q&A on this points out that they've gone the voluntary route in order to avoid having to regulate each and every antibiotic and antimicrobial drug individually, something that could end up being a lot more complicated. (Thanks for pointing this out, Anastasia Bodnar!)

Image: Some rights reserved by dullhunk

Notable Replies

  1. IMB says:

    This is ridiculous theater. You don't give corporations the "option" to make less money. The FDA needs to put some goddamn teeth into the regulation and not give anyone a choice. This is killing people.

  2. To state the obvious, the reason the FDA is making it voluntary is that they are completely in bed with the same people they're supposed to be regulating- hence, the theater.

    And here's another issue to consider: most hog farmers (for example) can not afford to run to the vet every time one of their 50,000 pigs gets the sniffles. They basically are the vet; every day, they walk the pens and look for sick pigs. When they see one, they mark it and move it to a quarantined pen. Depending on the symptoms, they might give it an antibiotic but they try to avoid that because each shot costs $$$ and eats into their already-slim profit margin. At some point, it makes more sense to let the hog die than to keep giving it medicine. To add the extra B.S. of having to go fetch a vet first, you bet farmers are going to get a local vet pal to rubber stamp the prescription, or buy the drugs over the internet from some mystery source- there is no other logical solution.

    Fixing the system with more dumb regulations is not fixing the system. The only way it's going to stop is with our wallets, by not buying that shit. That's it.

  3. The reason livestock operations need mass application of antibiotics is because the living conditions and diets of livestock is egregiously unhealthy, designed to fatten up the animals quickly at the expense of their health.

    The only way people will stop "buying that shit" is for journalists to poke their noses and cameras into livestock, slaughter, and food processing operations and show people what is going on.

    That has to be legal. A lot of state governments are in bed with the industry, and have made it illegal to poke around.

    And then there was the time Texas made it illegal to bad-mouth the beef industry. It didn't stick, but they'll try again.

    You know what we need? A tax on livestock antibiotics. High enough to make routine application economically unfeasible. Proceeds split between food inspection and R&D into a new generation of antibiotics.

  4. Aetius says:

    A giant government bureaucracy is reluctant to publicly embarrass itself by admitting that it wrongly approved and encouraged society-damaging behavior for sixty years, and is perfectly willing to let normal people suffer and die through arrogant inaction? Inconceivable!

    Oh wait, this is the FDA. That's their business model. smile

  5. Unless you personally know every farmer who had a hand in producing your food, "dumb government regulations" are the only way to even ensure that you can make informed decisions about the products you buy.

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