Will FDA’s Limits on Ag Antibiotics Accomplish Anything?

A new study highlights another problem with the federal regulations.

(Photo: Edwin Remsberg)

Dec 3, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

After years of delays and lawsuits, the Food and Drug Administration announced regulations last December that promised to curb the use of antibiotics in agriculture. While it was significant to see the feds do anything on the issue after decades of nothing—the drugs have been vexingly difficult to regulate—many saw the new rules as being far too lax.

As if making the long-awaited regulations—which the FDA has been considering since the 1970s—voluntary weren’t enough, a new study from the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming suggests there’s a significant loophole that could easily be exploited by antibiotic manufacturers.

The FDA’s workaround solution to controlling the use of antibiotics on farms was to change the labeling regulations. Drug companies that decided to opt in—again, the regulations are voluntary—would stop labeling antibiotics for “feed efficiency” and “weight gain.” All the major manufacturers are onboard and now have three years to make the changes. But the Pew analysis found that roughly a quarter of the drugs that will have those prophylactic usages removed from their labels can be applied “for disease prevention at levels that are fully within the range of growth promotion dosages and with no limit on the duration of treatment”—meaning they can still be used in the same manner as long as it’s for a different stated purpose.

“FDA classifies 29 of these 66 antibiotics as critically important in human medicine,” the authors write, “and 37 as highly important.” Continued low-dose usage of antibiotics are linked with the rise of antibiotic resistance, and those adapted bugs appear capable of leaving the farm in any number of ways—on the surface of raw meat, inside farmworkers’ noses, and in wastewater runoff.

The bait-and-switch really shouldn’t come as a surprise. According to the FDA itself, “there could be a therapeutic benefit associated with the production use of a drug,” and “sponsors could wish to seek new therapeutic indications to fill the therapeutic needs of animals.” In other words, a drug that’s been used for growth promotion could, under the regulations, be relabeled to indicate its therapeutic use and continue to be sold to the same livestock companies, who could use it in the same manner as before.

The reason why low doses of antibiotics help animals gain weight has long been a mystery, but the development, first discovered in 1950, was seen as such a profit-bulking miracle that little time was spent questioning it—or the possibility of developing resistant bacteria. New research conducted on mice suggests that continued low doses changes the gut bacteria in such a manner that the digestive system processes food differently, turning more carbohydrates into fatty acids and causing more fat to be stored in the liver. While the same results have not been observed in chickens or cattle, researchers expect what’s going on in the guts of farm animals is much the same. While drug labels can be changed, the effects they have, regardless of their targeted use, cannot be.