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The FDA’s Action on Agricultural Antibiotics Is Overdue—and Utterly Insufficient

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Most of the meat on our dinner plates comes from cows and chickens treated with a battery of drugs that helped them grow quickly in dismal, cramped conditions that would otherwise make them sick.  The drugs are blended into their food and water without any requirement for a veterinary prescription.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today issued long-awaited guidance, asking drug companies to voluntarily curb the use of drugs that are also essential for human health—such as tetracyclines, penicillins, and azithromycin. The guidance calls for pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily alter their drug labels to exclude growth promotion as a listed use, and that would make it illegal to use the drugs for such growth promotion uses in the future.

But voluntary steps will not do enough to help protect our critical antibiotic stock. Overuse of antibiotics in agriculture contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections that affect humans as well as animals, and voluntary guidelines leave too many loopholes. When such drugs are used on the farm they are typically administered at lower doses and for longer periods than they would be used for disease treatment and control.  In the United States, we use roughly four times more antibiotics in food animals than in humans. And any action to limit such overuse is a good thing. But the success of the FDA’s new program depends on how many companies volunteer to change their labels over the next 90 days in alignment with the FDA cutoff period. (Companies that do change their labels will have three years to phase in the changes.) And then there are myriad questions about how this would be enforced on the farm.

The bigger news today is that FDA also issued a proposed rule that would force animal producers to obtain veterinary oversight to use certain antibiotics. Essentially, farms would need a prescription to use these drugs in animal feed.

It would be a step in the right direction – if it survives the comment period intact. If pharmaceutical companies take growth promotion off the label first, this move could indeed help limit drug use on the farm (although the requirements are far from perfect). It would also help bring U.S. policies into better alignment with those of most other developed countries, including Mexico, Japan, Hong Kong, much of the EU, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, Denmark and Sweden. (For a better sense of how U.S. policies compare to those of other nations that buy up a lot of U.S. meat, see this chart published in Globalization and Health my Johns Hopkins University co-authors and I wrote in this paper earlier this year .)

FDA’s voluntary steps have garnered the support of a couple of pharmaceutical companies that own many of the drug patents, but public health advocates have called the steps toothless. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and Earl Bluemaneur (D-OR) have blasted the voluntary rules, saying they do not go far enough. “Sadly, this guidance is the biggest step the FDA has taken in a generation to combat the overuse of antibiotics in corporate agriculture, and it falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis,” Slaughter said today, in a statement. Meanwhile, Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at FDA reiterated today during a press call that FDA is taking voluntary action since it would otherwise takes “years” to get related regulation cleared.

About the Author: Dina Fine Maron is the associate editor for health and medicine at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @Dina_Maron.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Therapsid 1:38 am 12/12/2013

    I’m sorry, but the FDA issued “guidance” unilaterally at their own discretion?

    Obviously federal departments need some modicum of autonomy, but the level of independence they have in practice makes a mockery of our constitution. Do we have three branches of government or a plethora of branches, most of whom are unaccountable to the public?

    Did Congress pass a law on agricultural antibiotics authorizing the FDA on this matter? If you care about the issue, vote accordingly and pressure Congress and the President. But no – the federal bureaucracy is able to make rules that, in a more constitutional republic were and would be considered *laws* that a legislature must pass.

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  2. 2. oldfarmermac 7:21 pm 12/12/2013

    I’m very concerned my self with runaway regulation of our business and personal lives by faceless bureaucrats but on the other hand our society is so big and complex these days it would be utterly impossible for elected representatives to know enough, and have time enough, to pass all the necessary laws and regulations.

    I believe in free enterprise but I’m not so naive as to believe in the good intentions and the ethics of businessmen in general and faceless, soulless immortal corporations in particular.

    There are plenty of both that would figuratively speaking poison their own mothers for a nickel and give back three cents in change if they could do so for a penny on a large scale basis.

    I was told how great and benign antibiotics are in animal feed by my ag professors as an undergrad back in the late sixties over forty years ago; and by my furious biology professors that such massive abuse of antibiotics would result in not only loss of effectiveness as feed supplements but also that it would eventually result in our losing these antibiotics as useful human and veterinary medicines.

    The biology profs were right.

    It’s way past the time this practice should be eliminated or at least very sharply curbed.

    I’ve got to line up with the faceless unelected bueracrats on this one.

    Farmers don’t make any money from using these drugs this way, because they all do it- all the ones who are big enough to matter- and they all have the same basic expenses and get the same prices for what they sell.

    If the price of egg cartons goes up, egg producers necessarily add the extra cost to the price of eggs; if cartons go down, competition forces all egg producers to lower their price accordingly.

    No farmer is able to gain any extra profit by using these drugs this way.But on the other hand, he would have higher costs if he did not use them , and so he is is trapped into doing so; farming on average is a brutally competitive business.

    Farmers are price takers , not price makers.

    Using the drugs lowers the farmers production costs, but dog eat dog competition guarantees he also lowers his selling price, on average, by that same amount.

    The farmer gains nothing.

    The end user, the consumer, gets his chicken and hamburger maybe a couple of cents a pound cheaper .

    The drug companies are making all the money out of this practice because they have some pricing power due to limited competition in their industry even in generics , and because they can charge what they please for a patented drug.

    (None of this to say there aren’t thousands of regulations that do little or no good at all while costing us a great deal of time and money.

    Some of these regulations result in the waste of a lot of valuable resources and others sometimes force business people and farmers to resort to practices worse than the ones banned.)

    OFM, class of 72, College of Agriculture, Va Tech.

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  3. 3. jgrosay 10:43 am 12/13/2013

    The people living in the surroundings of big pig farms have a higher incidence of severe, multi-antibiotic resistant infections, and sewage form hospitals contains more antibiotic resistant strains than other sewages, but antibiotic resistance is found in bacterian isolates from caves having had no contact with the outer world from thousands of years before the first antibiotic, Penicillin, appeared after WWII, Sulphonamides were discovered earlier, but are slightly different to antibiotics.
    Late is better than never, but the subject deserves a close follow up, to watch if reductions in antibiotic use in food animals goes along with a reduction of antibiotic-resistant infections in mankind.

    Link to this

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