Senate Wants to Save You From Superbugs By Ending Farms' Overuse of Antibiotics

New legislation would direct FDA to actively regulate the use of drugs on livestock.

(Photo: Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Mar 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In the mostly toothless fight by the Food and Drug Administration to combat the alarming rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs—a spike that can be traced in large part to the profligate overuse of the lifesaving drugs on factory farms—we can at least take heart in one thing: Someone in Washington, D.C., still seems to care about the issue.

It's not just any old someone. Rather, four U.S. senators are pushing legislation that would close a gaping loophole in the FDA’s voluntary program to address the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced the bill Monday, which was cosponsored by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. If passed, the legislation would require the FDA to actively regulate the use of drugs that are important to human health and end the use of antibiotics and dosages that violate the agency's standards.

The sad truth is that the bill faces an uphill battle. A similar bill was introduced two years ago, when the Democrats controlled the Senate, only to go nowhere—and the political climate in Congress hasn’t grown any friendlier to industry regulation since then.

Which is more than just a shame—it’s a public health disaster. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 2 million Americans develop antibiotic-resistant infections each year, resulting in at least 23,000 deaths, and a report last year from the World Health Organization warned that “far from being an apocalyptic fantasy,” an era of modern health care without antibiotics “is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century.” Even so, the FDA has done next to nothing to effectively fight the problem.

Yes, the agency made some splashy headlines in 2013 with its voluntary program to rein in antibiotic use on factory farms, specifically by eliminating the ridiculous practice of administering antibiotics to animals simply to make them gain more weight.

That the program is voluntary isn’t the only catch. The FDA allows antibiotics to be given to livestock on a regular basis—day in, day out, for an unlimited amount of time—as a prophylactic measure. That is, to prevent the spread of disease that’s almost inevitable when you cram lots of animals into a confined space.

You can understand why the livestock industry and drug makers haven’t been quaking in their boots in response to the FDA’s rather lame attempt to tackle the problem: Factory farms still get to pump their animals full of antibiotics—now they just have to say they’re doing it to prevent disease rather than to bulk up their livestock. One industry trade association has said as much: “Growth uses of medically important antibiotics represent only a small percentage of overall use, so even if all other factors are static, it’s unlikely overall use would be greatly affected.” Those are the words of the Animal Health Institute, as cited by Avinash Kar, an attorney who works on the issue of antibiotic abuse at factory farms for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

As Kar points out: “Yes, 25 of 26 drug manufacturing companies have agreed to participate in FDA’s voluntary program. But you have to ask why? As we have emphasized before, the reality is that drug companies and the meat industry don’t have to change their practices much at all.”

The bill introduced by Feinstein and Collins seeks to change that, namely by setting limits on how long an antibiotic can be used for preventing and controlling disease, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Too bad this legislation can’t make like a superbug and develop its own resistance to other lawmakers’ attempts to kill it.