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FDA Wimps Out on New Antibiotic Guidelines; Risk from Superbugs Continues

FDA Wimps Out on New Antibiotic Guidelines; Risk from Superbugs Continues

By Leslie Brueckner, Senior Attorney

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has just punted on what is arguably the scariest public-health crisis of our times:  the overuse of antibiotics in the animal industry. 

In an earlier blog, we explained that over 80% of all the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used for livestock production—specifically, in order to make healthy animals grow faster and to suppress diseases that arise due to the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions in which they are raised. 

The inevitable result of this practice has been an increased resistance to infections in humans, which has killed 23,000 people this past year alone.  The Infectious Disease Society of America has gone so far as to declare antibiotic-resistant infections to be an epidemic in the United States.

The U.S. government has the power to stop this madness—and it should.  The FDA could, for example, ban the use of antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention.  That’s exactly what the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production recommended back in 2008.  At the time, Pew was part of a chorus of voices, including the American Medical Association, calling for restrictions on the use of antibiotics in the animal industry.  We and they believe that such restrictions could help save thousands of lives every year by slowing the growth of more superbugs.   

This month, the FDA finally responded by issuing a giant nothing burger:  a voluntary “Guidance for Industry” that merely urges the animal industry to not use antibiotics for growth promotion, but “do[es] not establish any legally enforceable responsibilities.”  In it, the FDA recognizes “the risk that antimicrobial resistance poses to public health,” and concludes that “the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs for production purposes in food-producing animals does not represent a judicious use of these drugs.”  Despite that conclusion, however, the FDA’s Guidance merely urges the “voluntary adoption of judicious use principles.”

Does the FDA really think that Big Agriculture is going to change its ways simply because the agency has asked nicely? Of course not.  The farmed animal industry depends on huge amounts of antibiotics to keep their profits on the rise. That’s big money for Big Agriculture and Big Pharma, two of the most powerful lobbies in the country.  There’s no incentive—zero—for either industry to change its practices.  That’s why, as CNN reported last week, the chief executive of the largest animal drug company has said that the FDA Guidance “will not have a significant impact on our revenue.”  

At bottom, the FDA’s Guidance is the regulatory equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.  The agency knows that antibiotic resistance could mean the end of modern medicine.  Yet it has proven unwilling to take meaningful action. 

Back in September, we observed that the factory-farmed animal industry is continually given a pass from regulators, and vowed to take action ourselves to make factory farms comply with various laws. 

We are continuing to fight our battles, but governmental action is needed to put out this particular fire.   With the FDA’s abdication, it’s time for Congress to take action.