FDA challenging the use of antibiotics in animals

Jan 19, 2012

The Food and Drug Administration is publishing an order this month that limits the way farmers can use certain antibiotics to treat animals, and eggs.

Cephalosporins are handy drugs for animals and people, but meat producers have been using them in ways that are not approved by the FDA. While curbing use won’t change much in the meat industry, today’s order signals a change that concerns some farmers who grow animals for food.

There are something like 10 times as many drugs for humans as there are for farm animals, and a whole lot more species of farm animals. So, people who depend on raising lots of animals, as quickly as possible, sometimes have to get creative. Larry Hollis a beef veterinarian at Kansas State University says Cephalosporin antibiotics are useful in ways not spelled out on the label.

“Some of them are approved to for treating say pneumonia in cattle, and yet we find that, let’s say in dairy cows they are highly effective in treating uterine infection, so that could potentially go away,” Hollis said.

Because the FDA is clamping down on the use of Cephalosporins in food producing animals - prescribed uses only. William Flynn is the Senior Advisor for Science Policy FDA, also a vet, says there’s good reason for that.

Cephalosporin is a class of drug that is particularly important also for use in human medicine.
They’re especially valuable for treating children, for their respiratory infections, some skin diseases, and salmonella, a disease people often get from eating meat or eggs. That’s alarming, because Flynn is seeing a sharp rise in animals carrying forms of salmonella that the drugs can’t touch.

“Bacteria are increasing becoming resistant to treatment by cephalosporin class drugs,” Flynn said.

Flynn hopes curbing their use will slow the development of antibiotic resistant bugs. But Cephalosporins are just a tiny portion of the antibiotics used in American agriculture: a fraction of one percent.

Growers do not add them to animal feed, as they do some other antibiotics. Brett Lorenzen with the Environmental Working Group, says that kind of drug maintenance is necessary to keep animals alive in what he says are inherently unhealthy living environments.

“The analogy that most people understand, is when you fly on the holidays, you often come home with a cold. You know you’re in a tube with a bunch of other people with four hours, with a closed air supply, and everybody shares whatever virus they’re carrying that week. That’s how most of the animals grown in America are raised. You know they’re in a closed building with 800 to a thousand other animals for their entire lives,” Lorenzen said.

So, routine antibiotic use is built into a system that keeps meat, milk and eggs coming all the time, at lower costs than would otherwise be possible. And that’s big business, not something that’s easy to mess with politically.

“Too little, too late,”  said Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York, with a degree in microbiology.

Slaughter says the FDA has been lax on antibiotic use in farming for a long time.

“They knew in 1976 that they should not allow the use of penicillin and tetracycline… even though they’ve known that all this time they have not had the courage to eliminate that from farming,” Slaughter said.

Meantime she says “superbugs” have arisen. Slaughter’s promoting a bill that would clamp tougher restrictions on giving antibiotics to animals used for food. Larry Hollis fears a different agenda.

“There are people who want to run animal agriculture out of business, and this is one of their ploys, I mean if they can take away the tools we use to produce with, than they can take us out of production,” Hollis said.

The FDA has telegraphed that it wants to wean the meat, dairy and poultry industries off of antibiotics for animals that aren’t sick… eventually. Many in big ag see that coming too, but caution that it needs to happen slowly, both for health of farm animals, and for the industry that produces them.

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