Following decades of inaction and increasing worries about the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has finally taken a small step to curb their use in agriculture.
Antibiotics are routinely given to healthy animals on farms in a nontherapeutic manner, or before they actually get sick, to compensate for filthy living conditions and to promote growth. The problem with this is that animals receiving low doses of antibiotics on a regular basis become reservoirs for bacterial growth that can result in antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria.
These antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria can be spread to other animals, but also to us humans by eating and handling meat and dairy products, by eating fruits and vegetables, or by being exposed to water supplies that have been tainted by manure in the forms of fertilizer and runoff.
Whether it’s in human medicine or animal agriculture the overuse, or misuse, of antibiotics poses a health risk. Considering the fact that 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in a nontherapeutic manner on farm animals unnecessarily, we’re continuing to allow for the growth and spread of diseases our medicine can’t fight, and we’re all susceptible to the outcome whether we eat meat or not.
At least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria every year in the U.S., and at least 23,000 people die as a direct result of these infections, while even more die from secondary complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The costs of these illnesses are difficult to calculate, but are estimated to be as high as $20 billion in excess direct healthcare costs.
What the FDA is Doing
The FDA is now addressing how antibiotics are used on farms to promote growth and use less feed. The agency announced this week that it will be implementing Guidance for Industry #213, a voluntary plan to phase out the use of certain antibiotics used in food production. The agency is asking pharmaceutical companies to revise labels of antibiotics that are important for treating human diseases and remove growth promotion as a use, which will change their status from being available as over-the-counter products to requiring veterinary oversight.
According to the FDA, once these changes are made antimicrobial drugs will no longer be able to be used for production purposes and will instead only be used to treat, control or prevent diseases in livestock and poultry and will require a prescription from a veterinarian.
It also proposed changes to the Veterinary Feed Directives (VFD) process, the system that governs the distribution and use of certain drugs that can only be used in animal feed with the specific authorization of a licensed veterinarian.
“Implementing this strategy is an important step forward in addressing antimicrobial resistance. The FDA is leveraging the cooperation of the pharmaceutical industry to voluntarily make these changes because we believe this approach is the fastest way to achieve our goal,” said FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Michael Taylor. “Based on our outreach, we have every reason to believe that animal pharmaceutical companies will support us in this effort.”
Will it Actually Help?
Not everyone is convinced that this will be effective in curbing the problems associated with the overuse of antibiotics, and the move is being criticized by members of Congress and a number of organizations, including Food and Water Watch, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Natural Resources Defense Council, among others – namely because it’s voluntary.
A statement from Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter, the only microbiologist in Congress who has also been fighting for years to pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), noted that the FDA shouldn’t expect the very industries that lobbied so hard against PAMPTA and other regulations to just suddenly comply.
“The FDA’s voluntary guidance is an inadequate response to the overuse of antibiotics on the farm with no mechanism for enforcement and no metric for success,” said Slaughter. “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.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council stated that: “FDA’s policy is an early holiday gift to industry. It is a hollow gesture that does little to tackle a widely recognized threat to human health. FDA has essentially followed a voluntary approach for more than 35 years, but use of these drugs to raise animals has increased. There’s no reason why voluntary recommendations will make a difference now, especially when FDA’s policy covers only some of the many uses of antibiotics on animals that are not sick. FDA is failing the American people.”
The FDA continues to defend the fact that its voluntary and stated that companies that don’t comply may be subject to regulatory action, but it still comes up short.
Please sign and share the petition worldwide to demand mandatory restrictions on the use of antibiotics on livestock. The FDA did not go far enough in resolving this issue, not only for the health and well-being of the animals, but as a public health crisis as well.
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