FDA's Token Maneuver: Baby Step Ignores Larger Antibiotic Resistance Problem

Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed banning extra-label, i.e. unapproved uses, of a class of antibiotics known as cephalosporins on healthy livestock.  This is a step in the right direction to curtail the rise in antibiotic resistance in humans, but it’s just a baby step.  It stands in stark contrast to FDA’s refusal to ban the widespread use of other antibiotics used much more commonly on healthy livestock—based on FDA’s latest numbers, cephalosporins constitute less than 0.25 percent of antibiotic sales for use in animals domestically. And its timing suggests an attempt by the FDA to distract the public from its effort to sweep the broader issue under the rug.

Just before the holidays, following a lawsuit by NRDC and our partners, FDA reneged on its proposal to withdraw approval for the use of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed, a use that, back in 1977, it determined back may pose a risk to human health.  Penicillin and tetracyclines, like cephalosporins, are some of the most widely used classes of antibiotics in human medicine, making their ongoing effectiveness very important to those of us who tend to need them from time to time. The science on the risks of herd-wide non-therapeutic antibiotic use on healthy animals has only gotten stronger since FDA’s initial acknowledgment of the problem 35 years ago.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), studies “establish a clear link between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans” and that “there is a compelling body of evidence to demonstrate this link.”  The lawsuit continues.

FDA’s step to ban extra-label use of cephalosporins is important but inadequate—a little like trying to keep out the cold by duct taping a crack in the glass instead of closing the window. Ironically, FDA’s action on cephalosporins actually serves to expose the wrongheaded nature of its broader stance on the use of antibiotics on healthy animals.  Not only are penicillins the most widely used class of antibiotics in human medicine, their use in livestock can also cause resistance to cephalosporins (just as cephalosporin use can cause resistance to penicillins). 

FDA should finalize the ban on the extra-label use of cephalosporins, but should move simultaneously to take comprehensive action to stop the unnecessary use of antibiotics on healthy animals and protect life-saving antibiotics for those who need them.