Bipartisan Senate leadership on antibiotic use in livestock

Senator Feinstein (D-CA) today introduced the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act (PAR Act), a bill that would take significant steps to protect public health by helping prevent antibiotic resistance, just as its name suggests. The bill is co-sponsored by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Jack Reed (D-RI), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The Senators deserve our thanks for their leadership on this vital issue.

The bill would require the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to phase out the use of human antibiotics in the feed and water of animals that are not sick if the use puts human health at risk. It would continue to allow the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals.

This is just common sense. The abuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is contributing to the growing public health crisis of antibiotic resistance. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is a health threat with enormous implications—the World Health Organization (WHO) says it “is threatening to undo decades of advances in our ability to treat disease.” The Director General of the WHO warns that growing antibiotic resistance could mean “an end to modern medicine as we know it” and that common illnesses could once again kill. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) counts antibiotic resistance among its “top concerns.” And there is a remarkable level of scientific agreement  that the use of antibiotics in livestock production is contributing to the problem and poses a risk to human health. A who’s who of medical, scientific, and public health groups agrees that “[o]veruse and misuse of important antibiotics in food animals must end, in order to protect human health.”

Eighty percent of all antibiotics sold in the US are for use in livestock. The vast majority of that use is to speed up animal growth and to compensate for the dangers of crowded, unsanitary conditions. Such use is especially likely to foster the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which can’t be knocked out by the usual antibiotics and threaten the continued effectiveness of essential medicines. We need antibiotics to work for sick children and other people who need them, and we shouldn’t be using them as a cheap crutch to replace better management practices.

We don’t pump kids’ cereal full of antibiotics in day care centers to prevent diseases. There’s even less reason to do this to allow factory farms to continue to keep animals in dirty, cramped conditions. Other solutions exist. Denmark has shown it is possible to replace nontherapeutic antibiotic use with improved management practices, such as cleaning livestock facilities more frequently, giving animals more space, weaning animals later, and providing better nutrition.  Like the United States, Denmark has an industrial livestock system, but it has dramatically reduced antibiotic use and significantly decreased the incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat, while increasing production and maintaining its status as one of the world’s largest exporters of pork.

The PAR Act is needed because the FDA’s approach to the problem has largely been to dodge and delay, even as it acknowledges the problem. FDA first proposed to stop the use of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed in 1977 because of the risks to human health from antibiotic resistance associated with such use.  But it has largely failed to take real action for the past 35 years, even after citizen groups petitioned FDA for action on those and other classes of antibiotics.

FDA’s continuing and primary response to the problem has been to push voluntary measures which make flawed recommendations and require no action from industry. Furthermore, those voluntary measures have a huge loophole which would allow most current uses to continue under a different name. (For more on that, see here).  

FDA must be directed to do more than roll out voluntary programs. That's where this bill comes in. It would require FDA to take meaningful action that measures up to the seriousness of this potentially catastrophic public health threat which could render essential medicines useless. It would require that FDA put a stop to the dangerous misuse of antibiotics on animals that don't need them so that these medicines continue to be effective for people (and animals) that do.

A similar bill was introduced in the House earlier this year by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY).