FDA Appears to Take Action on Use of Antibiotics in Livestock

By Craig Volland, CAFO Chair
In December the FDA proposed a new policy on the use of antibiotics in livestock production.
The medical establishment had become increasingly alarmed in recent years by the appearance of illnesses caused by bacteria commonly found on supermarket meat such as campylobacter and salmonella resistant to one or more commonly used antibiotic medicines. The meat industry has fiercely opposed restrictions on this use pointing out correctly, but disingenuously, that antibiotic resistance is also caused by overuse of these meds on humans.

The FDA action involves two steps. First, they want drug makers to voluntarily change the labels to eliminate the use of certain medically important drugs for the purpose of promoting growth of healthy animals. Secondly, they want livestock producers to get a prescription from a veterinarian before putting these drugs into the animals’ food and water. This policy, if followed, would supposedly eliminate the “over-the counter” use of antibiotics in livestock.

Some authorities called the FDA’s action a good first step, but many environmental and consumer groups panned it as grossly inadequate. To find out who was right I actually looked at some of the FDA guidance documents. The first thing that caught my eye was this heading:

Contains Nonbinding Recommendations

FDA’s guidance documents, including this guidance, do not establish legally enforceable responsibilities. Instead, guidances describe the Agency’s current thinking on a topic and should be viewed only as recommendations, unless specific regulatory or statutory requirements are cited. The use of the work “should” in Agency guidance means that something is suggested or recommended, but not required.

After FDA cautions against the use of drugs for promoting growth, I found this statement:

In contrast, FDA considers uses that are associated with the treatment, control, or prevention (my emphasis) of specific diseases, including administration through feed or water, to be uses that are necessary for assuring the health of food-producing animals.

Then there’s this FDA caveat:

Most of the feed-use antimicrobial drugs are currently approved for over-the-counter use in food-producing animals for purposes that include treatment, control and prevention of disease as well as for production purposes (ie. for growth promotion uses such as increased rate of weight gain). In addition to instituting voluntary measures that would limit use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals to uses that are considered necessary to assure the animals’ health, FDA also believes it is important to phase-in the voluntary practice of including veterinary oversight and or consultation in the use of these drugs.

Here we have the FDA proposing to phase in a voluntary practice. That has to hold the all-time record for timidity. Of course so many animals are crammed into CAFOs that any veterinarian in the pay of a livestock producer can easily excuse the use antibiotics to “prevent” disease. Just name a specific disease and away you go. Nobody other than the producer’s management is going to know what’s actually going on in a hog confinement, for example. Due to the ever-present threat of viral disease in these places, only employees are allowed inside.

Sigh. This most tentative of actions by FDA is completely consistent with it’s deeply ingrained habit of deferring to corporate interests. For some 30 years they operated on the assumption that the type of arsenic used in chicken feed (also showing up in meat) was harmless. Then they decided to actually test their assumption, which turned out to be wrong. FDA also dithered for decades before figuring out that synthetic trans-fat used as cooking oil and in margarine was killing people. So don’t hold your breath that the problem has been solved.

For more detail on the FDA at work go to:

http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/GuidanceComplianceEnforcement/GuidanceforIndustry/ucm042450.htm. Click on #209 (existing drugs) and #213 (new drugs).

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