FDA Withholds Big Ag Antibiotic-Usage Information

The Agency reports the amount of drugs sold to the agriculture industry every year—but the limited numbers are far from telling.

It's not a question of if livestock is being fed antibiotics, but of when and how much and why. (Photo:Michael Hewes/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

In the wonky world of food-policy issues, there are few topics less sexy than public hearings and comment periods relating to ADUFA reauthorization.

It’s intentionally dense to lead with the acronym for the Animal Drug User Fee Act, but if you’re of the opinion that information about the usage of antibiotics in animal husbandry needs to be accesible to consumers, this little-known piece of legislation should be important to you. The act is the only law that requires the release of figures for drugs sold to the agriculture industry. There's a public hearing set for tomorrow regarding the bill's pending reauthorization, and while chances are the act will be reauthorized, the disclosures it allows are by no means a benchmark of transparency.

In a story for Wired, Maryn McKenna reports that ADUFA II, the 2008 version of the bill, helped us learn back in 2010 that “livestock raised in the United States received 28.8 million pounds of antibiotics per year in 2009 and 29.2 million pounds in 2010.” Unfortunately, such numbers bring up more questions than they do offer answer answers: What percentage of the antibiotics where prescribed to treat disease? How prevalent was use of non-medically necessary antibiotics to spur growth? No figures that could address these or similar inquiries are provided in the report. As McKenna writes, “the FDA is forgoing opportunities to compel companies to disclose data that it would be in the public’s interest to know.”

The annual ADUFA report only lists, according to McKenna, the class of antibiotic and the number of kilograms “of all the drugs sold, by all the companies, for all livestock species, across all agricultural uses: growth promoters, prevention, and treatment.” A whopping 5,592,123 kilograms of Tetracyclines were sold in 2010, the highest of any antimicrobial class, but it’s nearly impossible to divine what, exactly, that number means without further details.

McKenna writes that the FDA has more data on file, and that public health and consumer advocacy groups have been using these limited public hearings and comment periods to call on the Agency to make that information accessible. But according to her story, it doesn’t appear that the FDA will heed any of these calls: “There is no sign it [the FDA] has responded to any of the requests made by organizations concerned about the off-farm, downstream, human health effects which occur when those antibiotics are used.”  

Similar stories on TakePart

• Antibiotics in Farm Animals on the Rise

• Meat Map: How to Dodge Antibiotics in Your Food

• Big Ag: It’s Really Small, Sustainable Farms Making You Sick

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