Since July, the Food and Drug Administration has been moving — quietly and cautiously, but moving — to raise the stakes in its long and so-far unsuccessful battle to rein in overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. For those new to the topic, this is the use of antibiotics not in treatment-sized doses, to cure disease in farm animals, but in smaller doses to prevent disease or simply to make the animals gain weight faster so they can raised more efficiently and sold off more quickly than they would have otherwise.
There are decades of research by now, demonstrating that this contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant organisms on farms that then move off harms and threaten human health. It’s not really a scientific question any longer; it’s a question of economics and politics.
(For a long discussion of what the FDA is proposing — and how much force it will, or won’t, have — see this post — at SUPERBUG’s earlier location, because we haven’t yet moved over all the archives.)
Yesterday, FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg gave a speech at the National Press Club at which she raised this issue and made some intriguing remarks. The overall point of the speech (see this AP article) was to promise increased investment and modernization — but she raised both the problem of antibiotic resistance generally and, in answer to a question, the problem of antibiotic use in farming.
First, here’s what she said generally about resistance (my transcription from CSPAN’s video above, starting at about 7:00):
There is increasing alarm about the problem of antibiotic resistance, and we worry with good cause. Today, antibiotic resistance mechanisms have been reported for virtually all known antibacterial drugs currently available for clinical use, which affects everything from global infectious diseases to ear infections in school children to staph infections in locker rooms. People actually talk today about a potential return to the, quote, pre-antibiotic era, unquote, where we no longer have effective tools to treat serious infectious disease. Clearly we must encourage more judicious use of these important drugs through improved infection control, rational prescribing and better patient compliance.
But even if we improve these practices, resistant bacteria will continue to develop no matter what. We need new and better drugs and we need them now. Yet the research and development pipeline is distressingly low. The number of newly approved antibiotics, not just new formulations of previously existing drugs, has fallen steadily since the 1980s, and the range of new antibiotics in distribution is limited in terms of the types of classes of new antibiotics available and the diseases they can treat.
And here’s what she said about farm use, in response to a question (starting at about 31:00):
There historically has been a very considerable use of antibiotics as part of animal husbandry and also agriculture. I think that for many years individuals and organizations in public health and medicine have raised those very concerns, about what is the impact of the use of antibiotics in animal populations on human health and the availability of effective antibiotics to treat disease. We are in the midst of very serious scrutiny of these issues and we have made recommendations in support of judicious use of antibiotics. Nobody wants to deny antibiotics to animals that need medical treatment. But the use in certain preventive contexts, where it is not clearly medically indicated, is of growing concern,. And it is an area that, working with our partners in government, both the CDC and the USDA and others, that we are taking a very serious look at. (Emphasis mine.)