Antibiotic overuse in animals: Obama administration comes out against

For anyone who cares about the overuse of antibiotics in food animals, and the resistant bacteria that overuse has been shown to produce, this is important news.

In testimony today, new FDA Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein announced the administration’s opposition to the use of growth promoters: sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics used not as disease treatment, but to encourage animals to put weight on rapidly. Further, he also came out against the administration of antibiotics in food animals without the involvement of a veterinarian — a common situation out here in farm country, where veterinary antibiotics are freely available over the counter. (We discussed Scott Weese’s proposal to end that practice here.)

Both of these practices have been repeatedly linked to antibiotic resistance, and for the administration to come out against them is highly significant — not just for the struggle against resistant bacteria, but also for the movement to reduce industrial-scale agriculture, which relies on antibiotics to keep food animals healthy while they are in the close confinement of CAFOs.

Sharfstein made the announcement while giving testimony on behalf of Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY)’s Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009, which has been introduced (and opposed into nonexistence) multiple times over the past decade. (Earlier post on the legislation, including its text, here.) He said:

To avoid the unnecessary development of resistance under conditions of constant exposure (growth promotion/feed efficiency) to antibiotics, the use of antimicrobials should be limited to those situations where human and animal health are protected. Purposes other than for the advancement of animal or human health should not be considered judicious use. …
Important factors in determining whether a prevention use is appropriate include evidence of effectiveness, evidence that such a preventive use is consistent with accepted veterinary practice, evidence that the use is linked to a specific etiologic agent, evidence that the use is appropriately targeted, and evidence that no reasonable alternatives for intervention exist. FDA also believes that the use of medications for preventino and control should be under the supervision of a veterinarian. …
FDA supports the treatment of ill animals according to appropriate veterinary practice within a valid veterinary-client-patient relationship.

Also on the docket at Slaughter’s hearing:

  • Margaret Mellon, PhD, of the Union of Concerned Scientists (who specifically discussed MRSA ST398): “As long as the massive use of antibiotics continues, animals … will remain a fountain of resistant pathogens, dangerous to both animals and humans. The straightforward solution to the problem is to reduce the use of antibiotics in animal production and thereby diminish the pool of resistant organisms and traits.”
  • Robert Martin of the Pew Environment Group (Pew Charitable Trusts): “The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health, damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food.”
  • And statements of support from the Chipotle restaurant chain and the Bon Appetit Management Company (which operates catering services in corporations and universities).

Of note, the Pew Commission on Human Health and Industrial Farming, which supports Slaughter’s bill, said after the hearing that Sharfstein’s proposals are only necessary but not sufficient: ““The proposed FDA position does not go far enough in this regard and would allow the continuation of conditions that necessitate the improper use of antibiotics in the first place.”


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