Ignoring Decades of Science, FDA Drops Plan to Curb Antibiotics In Livestock
The Food and Drug Administration has done everything in its power to prevent you from reading this post.
Just before the holidays, the agency charged with protecting Americans’ health reneged on a 35-year-old pledge to order farmers to stop feeding low levels of antibiotics to healthy livestock. These antibiotics have little to do with curing disease. They're used mainly to increase healthy animals’ growth rates.
Since 1976, scientific study after scientific study has shown that the widespread “subtherapeutic” use of antibiotics leads to the development of mutant superbugs. These diseases are resistant to drugs that have saved millions of human lives. Continuing to give antibiotics to healthy livestock is a major human health crisis in the making. (See "You Want Superbugs With That?")
The FDA's decision to take no action to avert this crisis comes at a time when the case against indiscriminate antibiotic use is mounting. In mid-December, Tyson Fresh Meats recalled hamburger meat infected with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella. A few months earlier, Cargill recalled millions of pounds of ground turkey that was also contaminated with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella, but not before the superbug sickened 136 consumers in 34 states, hospitalizing 94, and killing one.
The FDA has been aware of the resistance problem for many years. In 1977, it decided to act on scientific evidence and order farmers to stop using penicillin and tetracycline in farm animals. The law required the agency to act immediately. But under pressure from Big Ag and Big Pharma (80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are fed to healthy animals), the agency dragged its feet and did nothing, even though public health and environmental organizations, including the American Medical Association (PDF), urged it to act.
With scientific appeals falling on deaf ears for decades, the Natural Resource Defense Council, joined by other plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit last spring seeking to make the FDA follow its own rules. In a calculated attempt to undermine the legal basis for the NRDC suit, the FDA’s recent reversal simply nullified the original 1977 order, in effect wiping out 35 years of history and scientific research.
“We need to get our head out of the sand and start taking public health advice from scientists rather than industry lobbyists,” Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat and microbiologist by training, said in a press release in response to the FDA’s recent move. “Every year 100,000 Americans die from bacterial infections acquired in the hospital, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Seventy percent of these infections are resistant to the drugs commonly used to treat them. I wonder how many lives could have been saved if these proposals were adopted in 1977, as they should have been.”
The FDA insists that it is focusing its efforts on “the potential for voluntary reform," but that route is leading in the wrong direction. In 1999, farmers gave healthy animals 17.8 million pounds of antibiotics per year; by 2009, the total was 29.8 million pounds, according to the FDA’s own figures. Slaughter, who introduced The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act in 2009, reported that antibiotic use rose an additional 6.7 percent between 2009 and 2010, after the FDA initiated its new voluntary policy.
There is even evidence that subtherapeutic antibiotic use does not necessarily increase growth rates in livestock. In Europe, the practice has been banned since 1998, and levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria have plummeted, while meat production rates have stayed the same or increased.
When corporate and government PR flacks have information they don’t want the public to see, it's common for them to release it late in the news cycle. In the evening after deadlines have passed for most television networks and newspapers is a good time. Late Friday afternoons is even better. Tearing a page from the Chinese government, which makes it a practice to jail dissidents over Christmas when no one is paying attention, the FDA slipped this announcement into the Federal Register, without any public statement, immediately before the holiday lull.
That tells you everything you need to know.
UPDATE 1/5/2012: FDA further misleads and confuses on antibiotics
Image: Henrik Jonsson/istock