FDA Backtracks on Removing Allowances for Antibiotics in Conventional Livestock Feed

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–January 9, 2012.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on December 22, 2011 that it was terminating a rulemaking process begun in 1977 to reduce or potentially eliminate feeding low doses of certain antibiotics to healthy farm animals in conventional livestock operations. FDA had initiated the rulemaking and taken intermediate actions for more than thirty years in response to concerns that feeding livestock sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics would spawn resistant microorganisms that could subsequently infect people. These concerns have been consistently validated by a substantial body of scientific evidence, including the emergence of bacterial strains resistant to many and sometimes all available antibiotic treatments. In announcing its decision to forgo binding regulatory action, FDA cited the potential for voluntary reforms imposed at the discretion of livestock producers and pharmaceutical makers to achieve an acceptable standard of public health protection.

Dating to the 1940s, feeding sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics such as penicillin and tetracycline to livestock has become so common that it accounts for upwards of 80% of those materials’ annual usage in the United States. The practice is chronic in the industrial-style production systems referred to as confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in which the vast majority of the country’s swine, poultry and cattle are raised. The unsanitary conditions produced by packing excessive numbers of animals into an unnatural environment create the risk of infectious disease outbreaks that would be averted under living conditions appropriate to each species. CAFO operators capitalize on the accelerated weight gain and improved feed conversion efficiencies associated with animals fed sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics.

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The American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and hundreds of other organizations have recommended that livestock producers be prohibited from using antibiotics for growth promotion if those antibiotics are also used in human medicine. Denmark, the world’s largest pork exporter, banned the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in broiler chickens and adult swine in 1998, and in young swine in 1999. Danish government and industry data collected since then show a sustained decrease both in overall antibiotic use and in the amount of antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in livestock and meat products, while livestock production has increased. Denmark and other countries which have eliminated using sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics for accelerated growth rates and prophylactic disease control do not prevent veterinarians from treating livestock with those materials when medically appropriate.

In May 2011, a coalition of environmental and public health groups filed a lawsuit against FDA to require the agency to complete the rulemaking process and enforce strict standards regarding the routine use of antibiotics in livestock feed. Avinash Kar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which is a plaintiff in the suit, described the December 22 announcement as a “step backwards” for FDA. “This action by the FDA is a response to our lawsuit,” said Mr. Kar. “The findings in 1977 were included in the notice for opportunity for a hearing, and they think they can get around the lawsuit by withdrawing the notices for opportunities for a hearing. But we will not allow the FDA to ignore public health.” NRDC is also a member of a larger coalition called Keep Antibiotics Working engaged in an ongoing campaign against the misuse of these essential medicinal compounds.

Feeding sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to healthy livestock is not the only reckless practice leading to accelerated resistance among dangerous infectious organisms. Beyond Pesticides and a national coalition of partners are leading a grassroots campaign to ban the use of the antimicrobial compound triclosan in consumer products. Widely used in antimicrobial soaps and personal care products and even clothing, triclosan has been detected in human milk samples and in urine at high concentrations that correlate with its use pattern in these products. Recent studies have found that triclosan interferes with the body’s thyroid hormone metabolism and may be a potential endocrine disruptor. Children exposed to antibacterial compounds at an early age also have an increased chance of developing allergies, asthma and eczema.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certification standards prohibit treating livestock with any amount of antibiotics. The standards also require that producers maintain living conditions that prevent infectious diseases from becoming established and adversely impacting livestock health. Currently, organic farmers growing apples and pears are allowed to use the antibiotics streptomycin and tetracycline to control a fruit tree disease called fire blight. The National Organic Standards Board, the principle advisory body responsible for advising USDA on its organic certification program, has been increasingly reluctant to extend these allowances due to concerns about accelerated resistance in pathogenic organisms and the availability of effective cultural practices and biological treatments for managing fire blight. The NOSB has recommended extending the use of tetracycline and streptomycin to manage fire blight in pear and apple trees through October 2014 pending commercialization of alternative production options.

Sources: Guardian UK article, beyondpesticides.org

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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