The FDA Is Finally Tackling Antibiotic Use in Meat Animals—or Is It?

A plan announced today aims to curb the non-therapeutic use of medically important drugs in agriculture.

antibiotic foods

(Photo: Lester Lefkowitz/SCIMAT/Getty Images; design: Lauren Wade)

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

With their exotic names and villainous roles in hospital dramas, superbugs can easily be pushed aside as other people’s problems. If you’re inclined to think that antibiotic-resistant campylobacter or other drug-defying pathogens have as much bearing on your life as the last episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., however, consider the following: Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration found that 65 percent of chicken breasts contained bacteria resistant to the antibiotic tetracycline.

Yes, superbugs may very well be in your kitchen—and their presence can be deadly. To address the growing problem, which could render an entire class of vital drugs useless, the FDA announced a plan today to phase out the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock raised for meat.

In addition to moving away from the common practice of feeding low doses of medically unnecessary antibiotics to meat animals to promote growth, the new plan would introduce veterinary oversight for animals receiving therapeutic drug treatment. Like humans, sick livestock would need to get a prescription before taking a course of antibiotics.

The caveat? The new approach is voluntary.

“It’s basically recommendations to the industry that they’re free to take or leave,” says Avinash Kar, a staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued the FDA over the issue of antibiotic use on farm animals in 2011.

Kar says that at NRDC, “we’re skeptical that this approach is going to work,” noting that the FDA has “basically had a voluntary approach” to limiting the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture for years. Still, in 2011 nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics were sold to the farming industry—nearly four times more than were sold to treat human patients in the same year. This despite that the FDA has been aware of the public health risks of non-therapeutic antibiotic use in animal husbandry since 1977.

It was then, a decade or so after feeding antibiotics to livestock as a way to promote growth began to catch on, that the administration released its first report expressing concern over the practice.

“As the use of antibiotics has increased, the number and types of bacterial resistance have also multiplied,” the document reads. “There is a serious concern that, in time, this will lead to declining usefulness of antibiotics in the treatment of both human and animal diseases.”

In the press release put out this morning, FDA officials trumpeted the plan as a road map that could address those decades-old concerns—despite a failure to actually commit any regulatory muscle or threat of repercussions for noncompliance.

“This action promotes the judicious use of important antimicrobials to protect public health while ensuring that sick and at-risk animals receive the therapy they need,” Bernadette Dunham, director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, said in the statement.

The American Meat Institute, a trade group that represents the processors of nearly all of the red meat and turkey in the country, responded to a media inquiry with a similarly positive outlook. In an emailed statement, Betsy Booren, the institute’s chief scientist, said, “AMI strongly supports the prudent and judicious use of antibiotics in food animal production under the care of a veterinarian.” She goes on to say the new approach “is consistent with protecting both animal and public health, ensuring the ability to medically treat animals, and maintaining the highest standard of animal welfare practices.”

Dr. Robert Tauxe, a senior epidemiologist working on food safety issues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says the FDA’s announcement is long awaited, and he’s very pleased to see it. And as for the voluntary nature of the plan, he’s not too concerned.

“We need the major agricultural pharmaceutical companies to step forward themselves now and play the role as partners in managing antibiotic resistance and prolonging the usefulness of the antibiotics they make,” he says, and he expects that, despite the non-binding nature of the regulations, many of them will.

For the CDC, success will be marked not by reducing non-therapeutic antibiotic uses in agriculture but by seeing a decline of resistant bacteria occurring in human patients. Which is why the CDC judiciously tracks such infections. Tauxe says, “I can’t tell you yet what it [the infection rate] is for ’13, but it will be interesting to see, won’t it?” 

Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, isn’t quite sold on that rosy outlook. “It’s a baby step,” she says. “It’s a baby step in the right direction.”

While she’s encouraged to see the FDA addressing the issue for the first time in decades, she too is worried about the voluntary nature of the plan. Non-therapeutic uses are only one application of antibiotics in animal agriculture, and Halloran is also concerned that doses once given for growth promotion will simply be recast as preventive uses.

For consumers, the plan has little to no effect at this point. “It means it’s still very likely that most of the meat and poultry that you see in the store, if there’s no special label on it, it’s a virtual certainty that it was raised with antibiotics,” Halloran says. She recommends shopping for meat labeled “raised without antibiotics,” “no antibiotics,” or “organic” instead.

“Even though there might be an equal likelihood that there’s something on [the meat] that can make you sick,” she explains of the different labels, “it’s less likely that it will be antibiotic resistant” and thereby easier to treat.

So why make the big announcement if the plan is non-binding, doesn’t protect consumers, and only addresses one aspect of antibiotic use on meat-animal farms?

“It makes it seem like they’re doing something,” says NRDC’s Kar. “There’s been a lot of news on this issue in the last few years and the last few months. It’s one that many, many institutions and organizations have recognized as a pressing human health concern.” Those, according to Kar, include the CDC, the World Health Organization, “every major medical organization in the country"—such as the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Infections Diseases Society of America—and the G8.

“I’m guessing all that attention is driving FDA to try and do something about it,” he says. “Unfortunately, what they’ve done is pretty weak.” 

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