How The FDA’s New Move To Fight Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs Could Flop

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In an effort to combat the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, the Food and Drug Administration announced Wednesday it will ask pharmaceutical companies to help rein in overuse of antibiotics on farms. But the voluntary guidelines may have little impact on the mounting public health crisis created by the meat industry’s reliance on antibiotics.

Factory farms regularly dose cattle, pigs, and chicken with about 30 million pounds of antibiotics a year, both to speed up animal growth and stem the spread of illness among animals overcrowded in close quarters. But over the past few decades, pathogens like e. coli and salmonella have mutated to overcome the onslaught of drugs, making them very difficult to treat. As a result, more than half of the meat sold in the U.S. contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

After identifying this problem 35 years ago, the FDA is now simply asking veterinary drug manufacturers to stop advertising growth promotion as a legitimate use on drug labels. These companies have 90 days to tell the FDA whether or not they will comply, and will then have an additional three years to change the labels.

But Big Pharma has little incentive to sign on to the agreement. Voluntary guidelines, the FDA’s favored regulatory tactic, do not impose any penalties if a company chooses not to follow them. Meanwhile, livestock operations, which consume a staggering 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S, provide big business for these companies. Animal drug makers also still insist that antibiotic use is perfectly safe, ignoring the growing pile of evidence linking animal antibiotic use to human illness.

The FDA has also privately admitted that voluntary guidelines, rather than a mandatory rule, may not have enough bite to accomplish anything. In internal memos discussing animal antibiotic restrictions, the agency noted, “We recognize that the voluntary strategy has certain limitations in that (1) it lacks specifically defined/mandated timeframes; (2) its success is dependent on drug sponsors deciding it is in their best interest to work cooperatively with the agency; and (3) FDA collects insufficient data on drug use…to measure the effectiveness of the strategy.”

A more stringent aspect of the new guidelines will require a prescription from a veterinarian for drugs that are currently available over the counter, in hopes that farmers will be dissuaded from mass-administering antibiotics to all their animals. However, because the FDA has preserved disease prevention as a legitimate use of animal antibiotics, the industry may be able to easily circumvent this hurdle by arguing they are using the drugs to prevent illness, not increase animal growth.

Though American meat producers argue antibiotic use is necessary to keep animals and consumers healthy, other countries offer proof that tougher action on animal antibiotics is possible without bringing down the agricultural industry. Nations in Europe and Asia have strict bans on antibiotic use in any animal that is not already sick. In these countries, diseases are controlled by keeping facilities clean and not overly crowded. Diversifying animal diets, which consist of mainly corn and soy in the U.S., also helps cut down diseases. Foodborne illness has not skyrocketed in the absence of drugs; for instance, just .00009 percent of the European Union, which banned non-therapeutic antibiotic use in 1998, contracts a foodborne illness each year, compared with 15 percent of Americans.