Is the FDA Really Phasing Antibiotics Out of Meat?

This month’s FDA guidance for reducing livestock antibiotics will actually make things worse, animal welfare and food activist groups are saying. “The FDA is using a garden hose on a forest fire,” says Farm Sanctuary Senior Policy Director Bruce Friedrich. The guidance is a “diversion” that pretends to address the problem of factory farm-driven antibiotic resistance while accomplishing nothing. Antibiotic resistant infections, widely seen as driven by factory farming, sicken 2 million a year in the US and kill 23,000, says the CDC.

By asking drug makers to voluntarily renounce the use of antibiotics for livestock growth on their labels, the guidance “won’t cost the industry a penny” or reduce antibiotic use at all, says Friedrich. The reason? Factory farm antibiotics are also used to treat sickness which the crowded conditions tempt–a use that is still allowed under the guidance. Only the wording will change, says Friedrich.

In a December 11 conference call, the FDA’s Michael (“Monsanto”) Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, William T. Flynn, deputy director for science policy and USDA’s Thomas J. Myers, associate deputy administrator, told reporters that the government is asking drug makers to voluntarily restrict the uses on their antibiotic labels–yes, asking–in a shocking gift of self-regulation. Similar honor systems exist at slaughterhouses since Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) was instituted  in 1998 in which industry creates its own safety plan which the government simply cosigns. A similar honor system called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) is imminent for poultry slaughterhouses.

Why are the FDA and USDA allowing industry to write its own ticket? (And why would industry write itself out of its own profits?) Because to mandate the changes would require “hundreds of separate regulations” and actions, whined government officials on the conference call. It is easier to just say please to industry.

To many reporters on the conference call, the plans sounded like fluff. If the changes are voluntary, “what will enforce” them and serve as an “incentive” asked an ABC reporter? Food producers and drug companiesneed no incentive retorted Michael Taylor because they are starting to phase out antibiotics “for their own reasons”–citing McDonald’s and KFC. Right.

If factory farmers actually phased out antibiotics (which prevent animals from becoming sick in high density-farming) won’t livestock producers “have to move to different buildings” asked a reporter from Reuters.That’s why we are giving industry three years to comply replied William Flynn.

Will you release the identifies of drug companies who do not comply asked another reporter? No, replied Flynn. We will give an “overview” of the level of “engagement” of industry but not individual company names. (USDA has also protected the identities of US ranches that released mad cows into the US food supply and restaurants who served them according to newspaper and government sources.)

Animal welfare groups like Farm Sanctuary, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund are not the only ones calling the FDA guidance toothless and a serious capitulation to industry. Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter, the only microbiologist in Congress, called the guidance “an inadequate response to the growing antibiotic resistant crisis caused by overuse of antibiotics on the farm.” Industry has spent over $17 million to block a bill Rep. Slaughter developed, in conjunction with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), says a press release from her office.

This is not the first time government has caved to drug makers over the regulation of livestock antibiotics. In 2008, the FDA had announced that there was “evidence that extralabel use of these drugs [cephalosporins] in food-producing animals will likely cause an adverse event in humans and, as such, presents a risk to the public health,” and called for their prohibition. Notice the FDA says “will likely cause” not “could likely cause” and “presents a risk” not “could present a risk”?

But by the time hearings were held two months later and lobbyists had worked their magic, the “Cephalosporin Order of Prohibition” had somehow become a “Hearing to Review the Advances In Animal Health Within The Livestock Industry.” Prohibition — advances, same idea, right?

At the hearings, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the Animal Health Institute, a Big Pharma trade group and the egg, chicken, turkey, milk, pork and cattle industries whined that they could not “farm” without antibiotics because more feed would be required and the animals would get sick from being immobilized over their own manure.

Afterwards, W. Ron DeHaven, DVM, who was the USDA’s top vet before leaving for industry and helming the AVMA, penned a rambling, almost incoherent 18-page letter with 62 footnotes to the FDA. Cephalosporin resistant “human pathogens” aren’t increasing, says the letter, and even if they are, they’re not affecting human health, and even they’re affecting human health, how do you know it’s from the livestock drugs, and even if it’s from the livestock drugs, the FDA has no legal authority to ban cephalosporin. Got that?

Alternately maudlin and accusatory, the letter plays on terrorism fears by calling a cephalosporin ban a “food security issue” affecting “the number of animals available for the food supply.” It also plays on humanitarian sentiments by claiming a ban would impede veterinarians’ ability “to relieve the pain and suffering of animals” as if cephalosporins are pain killers and other drugs aren’t available. (And as if antibiotics are given for animals’ welfare instead of revenue welfare!) But less than a month after the letter was sent, on Nov. 25 the FDA quietly revoked the prohibition. Good hire, AVMA!

It is no surprise that factory farm operators fight to keep their antibiotics says Farm Sanctuary’s Bruce Friedrich. Without them, in their profit-driven “filth chambers,” the animals would simply die.

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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