On Antibiotic Use Factory Farms Police Themselves

Back in 2006, the European Union banned the practice of dosing livestock with antibiotics as a growth enhancer. In late October, the EU Parliament voted to extend that ban to all prophylactic uses of antibiotics on farms. The move won’t become law unless the European Commission approves it, but the Parliament is considered to be an influential body. The commission will announce a plan to address antibiotic issues on November 17.

Here in the United States, regulation of farm antibiotic use is moving in a different direction. On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration officially denied two citizen petitions—one issued in 1999 and the other in 2005—to impose similar restrictions here. In a letter announcing the decision, an FDA official explained that implementing such a ban would be too cumbersome, and that a voluntary approach would have to do.

In these two news items—one a push to crack down on the abuses of  factory meat farms, the other a defense of a voluntary approach—we have a  summary of EU and US approaches to food safety.

Mind you, on both sides of the Atlantic, there’s agreement in regulatory  circles that routine antibiotic use in animal factories is contributing  to deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria now infecting people. Indeed, in the  first two years of the Obama administration, the FDA seemed ready to  follow the EU in banning antibiotic use for growth promotion. At a  Congressional hearing back in 2009, Joshua Sharfstein, then deputy  commissioner of the FDA and a former aid to pro-environment House  firebrand Rep. Harry Waxman (D-Calif.), testified  to Congress explicitly in support of a bill that would have, like  current EU law, banned antibiotics as growth enhancers. Sharfstein  testified:

To avoid unnecessary development of resistance under conditions of  constant exposure (growth promotion/feed efficiency) to antibiotics, the  use of antimicrobials should be limited to those situations where human  and animal health are protected. Purposes other than for the  advancement of animal or human health should not be considered judicious  use.

But the bill never went anywhere in Congress. Then in 2010, the FDA issued a report  “intended to inform the public of FDA’s current thinking on the use of  medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals.”  Entitled “The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs  in Food-Producing Animals,” it’s a “draft guidance” document, meaning  that the agency is seeking public commentary in it before putting the  policies it lays out in effect. It signaled a hard line on antibiotics  from the agency:

In order to minimize the development of antimicrobial resistance, FDA  believes that steps need to be taken to ensure the judicious use of  medically important antimicrobial drugs in animal agriculture. Such  steps should include phased-in measures that would limit medically  important antimicrobial drugs to uses in food-producing animals that are  considered necessary for assuring animal health and that include  veterinary oversight or consultation. Such limitations would reduce  overall medically important antimicrobial drug use levels, thereby  reducing antimicrobial resistance selection pressure, while still  maintaining the availability of these drugs for appropriate use.  [Emphasis added.]

“Steps need to be taken,” “limitations”: This is the language of a  regulatory agency standing up to industry and telling it to stop  doing something that endangers the public health.

Six months after that draft was issued, the FDA came out with data on  just how much antibiotics factory farms are using. The results stunned even veteran observers of the meat industry’s voracious drug appetite: 80 percent of antibiotics consumed in the United States (excluding those use for industrial purposes like ethanol) go to factory farms.

You might think the revelation would bolster the FDA’s zeal for cracking  down on antibiotic use. But then things began to change. Sharfstein,  the deputy commissioner who had given blunt testimony to Congress on the  topic and was known to have been pushing a hard line, resigned in January 2011.

Now, the denials of the public  petitions to crack down on antibiotic use signals that the agency is  moving toward a voluntary interpretation of its “guidelines” for  “judicious use of antibiotics.” The agency’s November 7 letter announcing  its decision to deny the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s  1999 petition puts it like this: “FDA believes that the animal pharmaceutical  industry is generally responsive to the prospect of working  cooperatively with the Agency to implement the principles recommended”  in its draft document. Therefore, no need to impose binding restrictions on antibiotic use, as the petition had called for.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest isn’t buying that  logic. Noting that the agency’s denial of the 1999 petition had taken  “12 long years,” CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson said in a November 9 statement that  “the industry has long failed to cooperate voluntarily, and the FDA  should take binding action. Consumers cannot afford another decade of  delay.”

I contacted Sharfstein, the former FDA official who pushed a harder  line, for comment. He replied in an email that he’s “not able to talk  about FDA policy in this area at this point in time.” He added: “I’ll  let my comments at the agency (testimony, etc) speak for themselves.”

Back in 2006, the European Union banned the practice of dosing livestock with antibiotics as a growth enhancer. In late October, the EU Parliament voted to extend that ban to all prophylactic uses of antibiotics on farms. The move won’t become law unless the European Commission approves it, but the Parliament is considered to be an influential body. The commission will announce a plan to address antibiotic issues on November 17.

Here in the United States, regulation of farm antibiotic use is moving in a different direction. On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration officially denied two citizen petitions—one issued in 1999 and the other in 2005—to impose similar restrictions here. In a letter announcing the decision, an FDA official explained that implementing such a ban would be too cumbersome, and that a voluntary approach would have to do.

In these two news items—one a push to crack down on the abuses of  factory meat farms, the other a defense of a voluntary approach—we have a  summary of EU and US approaches to food safety.

Mind you, on both sides of the Atlantic, there’s agreement in regulatory  circles that routine antibiotic use in animal factories is contributing  to deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria now infecting people. Indeed, in the  first two years of the Obama administration, the FDA seemed ready to  follow the EU in banning antibiotic use for growth promotion. At a  Congressional hearing back in 2009, Joshua Sharfstein, then deputy  commissioner of the FDA and a former aid to pro-environment House  firebrand Rep. Harry Waxman (D-Calif.), testified  to Congress explicitly in support of a bill that would have, like  current EU law, banned antibiotics as growth enhancers. Sharfstein  testified:

To avoid unnecessary development of resistance under conditions of  constant exposure (growth promotion/feed efficiency) to antibiotics, the  use of antimicrobials should be limited to those situations where human  and animal health are protected. Purposes other than for the  advancement of animal or human health should not be considered judicious  use.

But the bill never went anywhere in Congress. Then in 2010, the FDA issued a report  “intended to inform the public of FDA’s current thinking on the use of  medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals.”  Entitled “The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs  in Food-Producing Animals,” it’s a “draft guidance” document, meaning  that the agency is seeking public commentary in it before putting the  policies it lays out in effect. It signaled a hard line on antibiotics  from the agency:

In order to minimize the development of antimicrobial resistance, FDA  believes that steps need to be taken to ensure the judicious use of  medically important antimicrobial drugs in animal agriculture. Such  steps should include phased-in measures that would limit medically  important antimicrobial drugs to uses in food-producing animals that are  considered necessary for assuring animal health and that include  veterinary oversight or consultation. Such limitations would reduce  overall medically important antimicrobial drug use levels, thereby  reducing antimicrobial resistance selection pressure, while still  maintaining the availability of these drugs for appropriate use.  [Emphasis added.]

“Steps need to be taken,” “limitations”: This is the language of a  regulatory agency standing up to industry and telling it to stop  doing something that endangers the public health.

Six months after that draft was issued, the FDA came out with data on  just how much antibiotics factory farms are using. The results stunned even veteran observers of the meat industry’s voracious drug appetite: 80 percent of antibiotics consumed in the United States (excluding those use for industrial purposes like ethanol) go to factory farms.

You might think the revelation would bolster the FDA’s zeal for cracking  down on antibiotic use. But then things began to change. Sharfstein,  the deputy commissioner who had given blunt testimony to Congress on the  topic and was known to have been pushing a hard line, resigned in January 2011.

Now, the denials of the public  petitions to crack down on antibiotic use signals that the agency is  moving toward a voluntary interpretation of its “guidelines” for  “judicious use of antibiotics.” The agency’s November 7 letter announcing  its decision to deny the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s  1999 petition puts it like this: “FDA believes that the animal pharmaceutical  industry is generally responsive to the prospect of working  cooperatively with the Agency to implement the principles recommended”  in its draft document. Therefore, no need to impose binding restrictions on antibiotic use, as the petition had called for.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest isn’t buying that  logic. Noting that the agency’s denial of the 1999 petition had taken  “12 long years,” CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson said in a November 9 statement that  “the industry has long failed to cooperate voluntarily, and the FDA  should take binding action. Consumers cannot afford another decade of  delay.”

I contacted Sharfstein, the former FDA official who pushed a harder  line, for comment. He replied in an email that he’s “not able to talk  about FDA policy in this area at this point in time.” He added: “I’ll  let my comments at the agency (testimony, etc) speak for themselves.”

http://motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2011/11/fda-walks-back-tough-talk-antibiotics-and-factory-farms

Tom Philpott is the food and ag blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here. To follow him on Twitter, click

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~ by narhvalur on November 14, 2011.

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