Antibiotic resistance rising, but FDA can't resist letting industry have things its way

This week, 12 years after leading public interest groups petitioned for FDA to put a stop to the livestock industry’s unnecessary use of antibiotics on healthy animals because of its risks for public health, the agency finally responded.  FDA’s reply: REQUEST DENIED.  The agency also denied a similar petition filed six years ago, in 2005.  In denying both petitions, the agency continues to show that it is not willing to challenge industrial feedlots addicted to these drugs.

FDA’s decision leaves the status quo unchanged, in which the overwhelming majority of all antibiotics sold in the country (80%) are for use in animals and such use continues to pose an unnecessary danger to public health.

Leading medical and health experts agree that the practice of giving healthy animals low doses of antibiotics—to make them grow fatter faster and to compensate for unsanitary and crowded conditions—endangers public health by increasing antibiotic resistance in bacteria.  When bacteria become resistant to an antibiotic also used in human medicine, antibiotics become less effective for treatment of human diseases, making treatment riskier and more prone to side effects. In some cases, treatment is no longer possible. 

Now, back to FDA’s response. FDA claims that although it recognizes that the use of antibiotics to make animals grow fatter faster is dangerous for public health, it is denying the petitions because it is following an alternative strategy. 

What is that alternative strategy?  Leaving it up to the livestock industry to decide whether to continue to use antibiotics in animal feed. FDA relies on guidelines it proposed in June 2010 to help the livestock industry make its own decisions about when to use antibiotics. That’s one way to dress up doing virtually nothing at all. The response continues FDA’s track record of mostly avoiding meaningful action on the issue of antibiotic resistance.

Even sadder, it took a lawsuit to get FDA to produce this non-response.  A lawsuit filed in May challenged FDA’s unreasonable delay in responding to the citizen group petitions.  Not only does the four-page “response” come after unconscionable delay, it comes almost a full year after FDA embarked on its so-called alternative strategy.  Yet, it took FDA five more months to generate four pages saying it was not taking any further action beyond its toothless proposal from June last year.  Yes, this is the agency that is supposedly protecting our food.

We believe that FDA Commissioner Hamburg is well aware of the risks.  In 2003, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences warned, “The specter of untreatable infections—a regression to the pre-antibiotic era—is looming just around the corner.”  It recognized that “[c]learly, a decrease in the inappropriate use of antimicrobials in human medicine alone is not enough. Substantial efforts must be made to decrease inappropriate overuse of antimicrobials in animals and agriculture as well.”  And it went on to recommend that “FDA should ban the use of antimicrobials for growth promotion in animals if those classes of antimicrobials are also used in humans.” (bold in original).  One of the editors of the Institute of Medicine report was Margaret Hamburg.  Today, Dr. Hamburg is the Commissioner of the FDA.  And the FDA, under her, today proposed to do essentially nothing about what is, in the words of the report she edited, a “looming crisis.”