By Andrea Germanos

Credit: USGS

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s newly unveiled “voluntary plan with industry” to curb the use of antibiotics in livestock does too little, too late to address the public health crisis posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, critics charge.

In the U.S., 80 percent of all antibiotics are used on food animals in an effort to make them grow faster and resist disease. Yet food safety advocates and health professionals as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned that this has contributed to the rise in antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs.’ “A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it,” the World Health Organization has warned.

To address this growing threat, the FDA announced that it “is working to address the use of ‘medically important’ antibiotics in food-producing animals for production uses” so that they will “only be used in food-producing animals to treat, prevent or control disease under the order of or by prescription from a licensed veterinarian.”

But as watchdog groups such as Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Food and Water Watch highlight, there are two main problems with the FDA plan: first, the fact that it is voluntary means livestock producers can simply ignore it; and second, livestock producers can say the antibiotics are being used for “disease prevention” instead of “growth promotion,” causing no change other than one of semantics.

Sarah Borron, a researcher with Food and Water Watch, explains the two:

It’s voluntary. FDA officials expressed confidence that pharmaceutical companies will get on board, and companies have a ninety-day window to express their intent to FDA. We look forward to FDA’s report of how many drugs will be covered at the end of that ninety days, but no plan was mentioned as to how to deal with stragglers and the agency does not have any mechanism to force companies to make this change in how antibiotics are used.

It doesn’t cover all the ways antibiotics are misused. Antibiotics used in livestock feed for “growth promotion” and “disease prevention” are used very similarly, and, regardless of why drugs are used in low doses in livestock feed, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are still the result. While eliminating growth promotion purposes will be helpful, and increased involvement of veterinarians in disease management is also good, FDA’s action still leaves untouched many practices that need to banned. FDA currently doesn’t even collect or provide the data that would let us examine this problem more thoroughly, but lumps prevention and treatment uses in one category, despite the significant distinction in what those two choices mean for antibiotic resistance.

Explaining why it made the phase-out voluntary, the FDA states that it is “because it is the fastest, most efficient way to make these changes,” and Michael R. Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, stated that “we have every reason to believe that animal pharmaceutical companies will support us in this effort.”

Natural Resources Defense Council health attorney Avinash Kar raises questions about this, writing, “The livestock industry accounts for 80 percent of [drug manufacturers’] antibiotic sales. Do we really think the pharmaceutical industry is going to voluntarily walk away from such a big chunk of its customer base? I don’t see that happening.”

“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 has essentially followed a voluntary approach for more than 35 years, but use of these drugs to raise animals has increased,” Kar added in a statement.

It’s an “early holiday gift to industry” that fails to tackle the problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria, he continued.

The proposal is essentially, as Heather White, executive director of EWG, sees it, too little, too late.

“Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are omnipresent in much of the U.S. meat supply,” White said. “We need a bold and aggressive plan to address this public health problem. Instead, the FDA has developed a weak proposal riddled with loopholes that could allow industry to continue its widespread use of antibiotics in animal agriculture.”

Adding her voice to those saying the new plan not enough is Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), a microbiologist, who stated, “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.”

“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,” she stated.

One positive feature critics see the plan as having is “a proposal that would require a veterinarians’ signoff for antibiotics that are commonly used in human medicine—which would represent a major departure from the antibiotics free-for-all that holds sway today,” Mother Jones‘ Tom Philpott writes.

Ultimately, though, the plan fails to protect public health, critics say.

“It is a hollow gesture that does little to tackle a widely recognized threat to human health,” said Kar, adding, “FDA is failing the American people.”

“While we believe any action is better than nothing,” said EWG’s White, “the FDA’s tepid response to this public health crisis is a missed opportunity to keep the American public safe.”

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