Agriculture industry science denial?

Original Reporting | By Eric Kroh |

“The literature in this arena is voluminous and the conclusion is clear,” Mellon said in her prepared remarks. “Antibiotic overuse in agriculture — just as in human medicine — is undercutting the efficacy of important human therapies and generating more virulent pathogens.”

The USDA and the CDC have also come to acknowledge that the use of antibiotics in animals poses a health hazard to the public. Legislation to curtail the use in animals of antibiotics that are important for human medicine is supported by the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, and other organizations.

At the same 2009 congressional hearing, FDA principal deputy commissioner Joshua Sharfstein testified that the agency “supports ending the use of antibiotics [in animals] for growth promotion and feed efficiency,” and that doing so “will not compromise the safety of food.” In 2010, the agency released draft guidance recommending that the use of antibiotics in food animals be limited to uses “considered necessary for assuring animal health” and only when supervised by a veterinarian.


FDA inaction

Despite the evidence, the FDA has still not acted to force livestock producers to end the non-therapeutic use in animals of medically important antibiotics — that is, those that are used in human medicine.

advocacy groups sue the fda

On May 25, a coalition of organizations including the National Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, sued the FDA to compel the agency to act on its 1977 recommendation and withdraw approval for the sub-therapeutic use of penicillin and tetracyclines in animals, saying the FDA is legally bound to do so. The suit also says the FDA has unlawfully delayed action on petitions filed in 1999 and 2005 requesting that the agency withdraw its approval for the non-therapeutic use in livestock of antibiotics that are important to human medicine.

Avinash Kar, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the problem of antibiotic resistance was reaching “alarming proportions” and the FDA was neglecting its duties by not acting on its earlier findings. 

Remapping Debate asked a spokeswoman for the FDA why the agency has not followed its own recommendations and imposed restrictions on antibiotics in food animals, and whether the burden placed on the national healthcare system and the threat to human health warranted immediate action to stem the risk of antibiotic-resistant microbes. In an emailed response, the spokeswoman did not answer the questions but said simply that the FDA is “currently reviewing the comments received [on the draft guidance] and determining the next steps.”

Lawmakers have also shown no willingness to address the problem. One bill that would eliminate the use of several classes of medically important antibiotics for non-therapeutic uses — the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2011 (PAMTA), introduced by Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a Democrat from New York — has gone nowhere. (Slaughter introduced the same bill in 2009 as well, but it never even came to a vote in committee.)

Mellon said PAMTA is a well crafted bill, but it faces an uphill battle in Congress because of industry opposition.

“There is enormous opposition to it coming from the animal industry, which doesn’t want to start doing something about the problem,” Mellon said. “Basically they’re still in denial mode, that this is not a problem and therefore that they’re going to stop any legislation that would lead to a change in agricultural practices and they’re very powerful politically. They’re making it very difficult for the legislation to move forward.”


Danes take a different road

Denmark, the world’s largest exporter of pork, banned the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in animals in 1995 and banned all non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in 2000.  Denmark uses far less antibiotics per kilogram of meat produced than does the industry in the U.S. (see chart).  Its experience shows that transitioning away from the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animals achieves a reduction in the level of antibiotic resistant bacteria found in animals, and that the shift can be accomplished without harming industry.

Per Henriksen, of the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, testified at a 2010 congressional hearing that  — 15 years after the ban on antibiotics used to promote growth — antibiotic use in livestock was still down 40 percent from pre-ban levels. Denmark uses more antibiotics to treat disease in animals than it did before the ban, since the animals are not fed a continuous dosage of drugs to ward off illnesses before they occur. But the decline in non-therapeutic dosages more than makes up for the difference.

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