(Article changed on February 6, 2014 at 07:52)
CORNUCOPIA, WI: On December 11, 2013, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) released a guidance document that asks animal-drug makers to voluntarily discontinue marketing antibiotics to farmers for faster livestock growth, limiting their use strictly to therapeutic uses.
"The outstanding question is, will this billion-dollar industry make voluntary changes in order to protect the efficacy of important antibiotics used to treat human illnesses," asked Rebecca Thistlethwaite, a farm-policy analyst with The Cornucopia Institute. "Or will pharmaceutical companies resort to a public-relations shell game, in order to protect profits in which no material changes really take place?"
Juan Ramon Alaix, CEO of Zoetis, the world's largest animal pharmaceutical company, said in a recent interview, "We (Zoetis) agree with the approach of the FDA to eliminate the growth-promotion indication of certain antibiotics which are relevant for humans in feed. But this will not have a significant impact on our revenues."
"Mr. Alaix's statement implies that Zoetis expects minimal changes in the sales of their animal drugs and that this new FDA guidance will have little effect on the usage of antibiotics in food animals or their sales," Thistlethwaite added. "If the pharmaceutical companies support the FDA's proposed changes, one might suggest they may be ineffective in curbing antibiotic use."
According to the FDA an estimated 80% of all antibiotics manufactured in this country (by weight) are administered to livestock -- and most are marketed to promote weight gain and feed efficiency.
"The indiscriminate use of antibiotics in livestock has allowed meat packers to crowd even more animals into their feedlots and exert more influence over the meat supply and prices," explains Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF, an independent rancher organization.
Adds Cornucopia's Thistlethwaite: "How about the FDA address the crowded conditions that spread drug-resistant pathogens throughout animal herds and flocks in the first place?"
The draft guidance (#213), written as nonbinding recommendations, calls for a voluntary three-year transition of medically important antibiotics to no longer allow their use for food-animal growth or feed-efficiency purposes. According to environmental health scientists at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, this would merely "rebrand the uses currently labeled as growth promotion as disease prevention."
So-called "sub-therapeutic" administration of antibiotics, low doses of the drugs in feed and water to prevent disease, is just as likely to apply selective pressure for antibiotic resistance as sub-therapeutic administration designed for production purposes -- the same exact problem the FDA is purportedly trying to address with the new restrictions.
More and more antibiotic resistance is being found in dangerous and deadly bacteria around the country. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections, for example, kill close to 20,000 people a year in the U.S. Many studies show a multitude of drug-resistant pathogens on meat and poultry products purchased in grocery stores.
A recent study published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal found 47% of meat and poultry samples from five U.S. cities were contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus. Ninety-six percent of those samples were resistant to at least one antibiotic, and 52% were multi-drug resistant. In addition, tests conducted by the FDA every year routinely show high levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on retail meat.
"If you get an infection and antibiotics don't work to control it, what next?" asks Mark A. Kastel, Cornucopia's Co-director. "That's one of the reasons we see high mortality in victims of infections caused by MRSA strains of bacteria."
As an alternative to antibiotic usage, some livestock experts suggest the best preventative strategy is to limit the number and density of animals in a facility and to create a healthier environment, such that disease does not spread so rapidly. "Prophylactic use of antibiotics props up the entire 'factory farm' model," Kastel explains. "And there are many other contingent liabilities associated with industrial-scale livestock production in addition to antibiotic-resistant bacteria."
The other major change the FDA's draft guidance calls for is to bring the therapeutic uses of important antibiotics under the direct oversight of licensed veterinarians. While that move seems reasonable in many ways, similar to requiring a doctor's prescription to obtain antibiotics for humans, it may disproportionately disadvantage small farmers who don't have a regular relationship with a veterinarian.