This Holiday, FDA Ignores Public Health and Wishes for Miracles to Solve Antibiotic Resistance

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Just in time for the holidays, as many among us prepare to sit down to turkey or ham at the dinner table, FDA has taken a big step backwards on the public health threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria in our meat and in our everyday lives. The agency has chosen to go back on its nearly 35-year-old promise to stop the use of certain antibiotics in animal feed. Today, it essentially announced to the American citizens it is supposed to protect that they are on their own when it comes to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

As I’ve written before, leading medical and health experts agree that the widespread and unnecessary practice of giving healthy animals low doses of antibiotics endangers public health—by increasing antibiotic resistance in bacteria.  Rising resistance renders antibiotics less effective for treatment of human diseases and makes treatment riskier and more prone to side effects. In some cases, treatment is no longer possible. In the US, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold are for use in livestock. Public health advocates have repeatedly asked FDA to address the looming crisis of untreatable infections, but FDA has repeatedly evaded the issue.

In November, I wrote about FDA punting on its obligations to protect public health by proposing to address citizen calls for action through voluntary self-policing of antibiotic use by the livestock industry. 

Today, the FDA has further extended its poor record on the huge public health threat posed by rising antibiotic resistance.  Here’s how:

Back in 1977, FDA determined that feeding animals low-doses of certain antibiotics used in human medicine -- namely, penicillin and tetracyclines -- could promote antibiotic-resistant bacteria capable of infecting people. As a result, it proposed to withdraw approval for the use of those antibiotics in animal feed. However, despite this conclusion and laws requiring that the agency act on its findings, FDA has never followed through. Today, under pressure from a lawsuit that NRDC and its partners filed earlier this year to compel FDA to address this public health threat, FDA instead elected to do an about-face and to hide its head in the sand: the agency withdrew its proposal to stop the use of those antibiotics in animal feed.   Instead of fixing the problem, FDA is going to try to erase history, to act as if it didn’t see the problem back then and then proceed to ignore it for the next 35 years. Amazing.

It’s also worth noting that FDA admits it continues to have “concerns” about the safety of the use of antibiotics in animal feed, but proposes another approach—you guessed it—voluntary self-policing by industry. The industry has essentially been self-regulating for the last 35 years, and that hasn’t worked out too well as antibiotic use in livestock and antibiotic resistance have continued to rise. Something tells me it won’t work any better now.

FDA’s action today is nothing more than bureaucratic maneuvering in the face of the lawsuit, designed to be buried in the lull of the holiday news cycle.

FDA is supposed to protect our food and people’s health, not find ways to wriggle out of that responsibility. FDA’s action today only serves to confirm our resolve. We will not allow FDA to ignore public health and will continue our legal fight. 


Image courtesy Reymond Galvez, via Flickr