By Avinash Kar, Natural Resources Defense Council
FDA announced with fanfare today that it has made progress on addressing the misuse of antibiotics by making changes to instructions on labels for medicine used in livestock. Unfortunately, the announcement is a false promise of dawn. FDA continues to allow the mass administration of antibiotics at low doses to animals that are not sick.
What FDA should be doing is making it clear that antibiotics should only ever be used when animals are sick. Period. What it has done instead is entrench such use under an alternative justification.
For decades, FDA has been allowing antibiotics to be used en masse at low doses for both growth promotion and so-called “disease prevention” in the unsanitary living conditions on many industrial farms. Today’s announcement eliminates language on antibiotics labels that says they can be used for one of those purposes—growth promotion. But, and this is a huge BUT, it leaves behind a massive loophole in not addressing the other misuse—“disease prevention.”
When you have two roads leading to the edge of a cliff, closing off one of the roads doesn’t stop traffic from going over the cliff. Deleting growth promotion approvals on labels does nothing to stop mass administration of antibiotics at low doses to large numbers of animals for “disease prevention.” It’s the same kind of inappropriate use and will lead to the same kind of negative effects—the proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
That nothing much is changing is evident from statements made by FDA staff. In an interview recently, Bill Flynn of FDA said that a veterinarian can approve the use of an antibiotic for 5,000 animals going through a facility over the course of 6 months: “So, if the understanding was that 5,000 head would be moved through a facility, that the expectation is that the capacity of that facility is 5,000 head over 6 months. At any given time, maybe there’s only 500 to 1,000 of those animals but the authorization is for up to 5,000 animals over a designated period of time.”
In other words, you can pre-authorize the use of antibiotics for 5,000 animals that go through a facility, knowing nothing more than that they are going to go through the facility—no animals have to be sick. As my colleague at the Food Animal Concerns Trust, Steve Roach, points out, many drugs have no limits on duration of use or have long durations of use approved, making this a very distinct possibility. Even when the regulations seem to limit the use of the antibiotics to a certain duration, say 14 days, a veterinarian could authorize another use of the drug following the 14-day period and uses could be stacked together.
So, the key takeaway: don’t believe the hype. FDA is not doing nearly enough to stop agricultural antibiotic overuse and keep our lifesaving drugs working when people need them. At the same time that it’s creating this labeling loophole, antibiotic sales in the livestock continue to go up, up, up, according to FDA’s own recent report.
Conservatively, 2 million Americans already contract antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and more than 23,000 die from them. Livestock use of antibiotics is contributing to the spread of antibiotic resistance. FDA needs to rein in this abuse before it’s too late, and we’re out of options to save sick people.