Antibiotic resistance is a growing threat to public health. But before federal regulators place restrictions on antibiotics used in food-animal production, they should consider what already has been done.
A White House initiative on combating antimicrobial resistant bacteria expected to be announced this week will include recommendations to address antibiotic resistance for human and veterinary medicine. But advocacy groups likely will proclaim the priorities related to animal agriculture don’t go far enough. The implication will be that there is some failure with, or lack of, current regulations on antibiotics use in food animals that’s causing people harm.
Indeed, in a letter sent recently to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren lay the blame for the rise in antibiotic-resistant illnesses squarely on America’s farmers. But over the past 10 years, there have been several regulatory actions to curtail the use of antibiotics in food animals.
In 2003, FDA implemented a requirement for approval of new animal drugs, looking at their potential threat to public health. If the risk of using a particular antibiotic was found unacceptable, the drug either was not approved or approved with significant marketing limitations. Since then, FDA took action on two antibiotics used in food-animal production that are important in human medicine, withdrawing approval for one and limiting the use of another.
Last year, FDA issued Guidance for Industry 213, asking animal-drug manufacturers to stop selling antibiotics important in human medicine labeled only for promoting growth in food animals and to put all other uses under veterinary oversight. All 26 companies that make antibiotics for food animals agreed.
Guidance 213 is a significant regulatory step that will result in changes on how antibiotics are used on the farm. And contrary to what critics claim, it’s hardly voluntary. FDA indicated it will take action against drug manufacturers that don’t withdraw antibiotics with growth promotion labels, and beginning in 2017 it will be illegal to use those antibiotics for growth promotion.
It’s the growth promotion uses of antibiotics that critics of modern food-animal production have targeted, claiming that “overuse” of such products in livestock and poultry has led to antibiotic-resistant illnesses in people. To back that charge, they cite sales data collected by FDA.
But the claim that “70 to 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States each year are used in livestock” is a straw man. More than a third of those drugs aren’t used in human medicine, another third are not considered highly important to human medicine, and most of them aren’t used for growth promotion. Critics also ignore the fact that there are a lot more cows, pigs and chickens than people. In 2011, for example, 30 million pounds of antibiotics were sold for use in more than 3 billion livestock and poultry, compared with 7 million pounds for 311 million people, meaning each person used nearly five times more antibiotics than were used in each food animal.
The food-animal industry will comply with Guidance 213. It also is willing to provide more data on antibiotics use — as USDA’s plan is expected to encourage — but only if the goal is to advance knowledge of the complex issue of antibiotic resistance. Simply collecting numbers that critics of food-animal production can use to call for further restrictions on farmers’ use of antibiotics won’t help improve public health.
Finally, it’s important to recognize there’s no scientific evidence that antibiotics used in food animals are harming public health, and numerous peer-reviewed risk assessments, including one from FDA, show a negligible risk to people from antibiotics used in livestock and poultry. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report “Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013” identified 18 bacteria-specific resistance threats, but only two had food animals as a potential source. Similarly, the World Health Organization’s “Antibiotic Resistance: Global Report on Surveillance 2014” focused on pathogens not related to antibiotics used in food animals.
Livestock and poultry farmers, who long ago accepted that they must do their part to address the threat of antibiotic resistance, have seen over the past decade real restrictions on their use of antibiotics. Federal regulators should consider that before they place more limits on farmers’ ability to keep their animals healthy.