Sorry, Obama: The Food Industry Won't Stop Abusing Antibiotics on Its Own

For decades, scientists have worried that the abuse of these medicines would harm us all. Still, a mandatory regulation to reduce their abuse has yet to be written.

(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Mar 27, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

First the Food and Drug Administration, and now the White House.

It seems that anyone in Washington, D.C., who's worried about the massive public health risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria—aka the superbugs that could wreak death and devastation if antibiotics stop working—cannot manage to follow up with meaningful regulations. The FDA first officially voiced concern about the practice of feeding livestock antibiotics for growth promotion, which can result in resistant bacteria, way back in 1977; the agency didn’t regulate the practice until 2013, and the regulations it passed are voluntary.

Last September, President Barack Obama issued an executive order calling for a national plan to curb the abuse of medicines like penicillin, which many public health groups say has already brought about the post-antibiotic era. Friday morning, the White House released that report, saying it's time to curb a problem that causes about 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses every year in the U.S.

The plan promises to "lead to major reductions in the incidence of urgent and serious threats," such as the spread of the staph bacteria known as MRSA, by 2020. The president's budget would devote nearly $1.2 billion to the effort, which calls for a more judicious use of antibiotics in health care and agricultural settings.

Critics say the long overdue plan falls short, particularly in its failure to mandate any reduction in the use of these medically important drugs in agricultural settings.

“Once again the Obama administration has missed an opportunity to strengthen its response to the urgent public health crisis of antibiotic resistance,” Steven Roach, a senior analyst for the group Keep Antibiotics Working, said in a statement. The Chicago-based coalition of advocacy groups pushes for stronger regulation of antibiotics use.

When it comes to the use of antibiotics in livestock, the White House plan supports the FDA’s voluntary regulations, which seek to reduce the use of medically important drugs through a twist of marketing: by removing growth promotion claims from labels, ag producers are expected to use less antibiotics. For decades, meat farmers have used antibiotics to fatten up their sold-by-weight product.

Critics, including Roach's group, say that even under the new plan, livestock operations can continue to feed animals low-grade doses of antibiotics and say they're doing it to prevent disease, allowing the troubling practice to continue. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental group, said the White House is finally acknowledging the severity of the threat of antibiotics misuse but isn't doing enough.

"The Obama Administration needs to do more to reduce antibiotic use in animals that are not sick," Mae Wu, a health attorney for NRDC, said in a statement. "The plan continues to allow the routine feeding of antibiotics to animals that live in the crowded conditions endemic to industrial farms."

Confined animal feeding operations aren’t the only setting where resistant bacteria can develop—hospitals too are prime breeding grounds—but the sheer volume of drugs that are funneled into the meat industry, and the long-standing lack of regulatory oversight, makes meat production both troublesome and a potential area in which to make progress. It's estimated that nearly 75 percent of the near 30 billion pounds of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are bought by the agriculture industry.

There is some good news on the horizon—industry and businesses are responding to consumer demand for antibiotics-free meat. McDonald’s and Costco recently announced that they would shift toward antibiotic-free poultry, which could begin a larger change across the poultry industry.

Still, as Rep. Louise Slaughter, the only microbiologist in Congress, said in response to the McDonald’s announcement, “until there is an enforceable, verifiable limit on agricultural antibiotic use, we will have no way to verify whether chicken raised on medically important antibiotics has been truly phased out.”

Which is why the New York Congress member once again introduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which would set the strict limits on antibiotics that neither regulators nor the White House can manage to make happen.