FDA green washing antibiotic reductions

This guest post is by Steve Roach, Senior Analyst at Keep Antibiotics Working. Keep Antibiotic Working is a coalition of groups, including NRDC, that is dedicated to eliminating the inappropriate use of antibiotics in food animals.

FDA announced last week that Phibro Animal Health (Phibro) was withdrawing approval of two feed additives for use in chickens that contained the antibiotic penicillin combined with other non-antibiotic drugs. It claimed that “the decision to remove these antibiotic-containing feeds from the market for production purposes supports FDA’s voluntary strategy for judicious use of antibiotics in food-producing animals.” It’s great that Phibro is committing to no longer selling these additives, which were approved for growth promotion and routine disease prevention, but it is hard to see how this action actually supports FDA’s strategy on antibiotics.

FDA’s strategy is to ask drug makers to voluntarily stop selling antibiotics for growth promotion and feed efficiency, uses that FDA calls production purposes to contrast them with other uses that are for animal health.

First, as FDA admits Phibro was no longer making or selling these additives and there is no evidence that FDA’s strategy, which has not even been finalized, influenced the company’s decision.  In fact, the limited evidence available suggests that chicken farms had switched to antibiotics other than penicillin more than ten years ago, before FDA’s plan was even under consideration.  In addition, one of the additives includes the arsenical roxarsone which was removed from the market in 2011 because of concerns about cancer causing residues not antibiotics.

 Even more telling is what Phibro did not do. In addition to the two approvals that Phibro just withdrew for penicillin combined with non-antibiotic drugs in feed, the company also has another feed approval for penicillin used by itself for growth promotion in pigs and turkeys, along with chickens. So Phibro is keeping open the option to sell penicillin for growth promotion in an even wider range of species while withdrawing combination approvals it was not even using.  For FDA’s plan to have any impact it has to change how antibiotics are used not just how they are labeled, and this action does not meet that goal. 

FDA claiming that this action supports its antibiotic resistance strategy is exactly the kind of “green washing” opponents of FDA’s voluntary approach were worried about when FDA first proposed it: Companies making label changes that do not actually reduce antibiotic use but allow the FDA and the industry to claim they are making progress.  If Phibro had announced it was withdrawing all approvals of penicillins in feed, that would be an action worth bragging about.