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The FDAs Action on Agricultural Antibiotics is Overdue and Utterly Insufficient

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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.

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

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