Misdirections and Feints on Antibiotic Use in Livestock Operations: Plays from the Industry Playbook

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Many of us have heard about the recent brouhaha created when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) dared to promote  Meatless Mondays—a campaign that asks participants to skip eating meat one day a week—as a way for its staff to reduce their personal environmental footprints. This small suggestion (published in an interoffice newsletter no less) was enough to spur the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association to come out swinging, claiming this was an affront to all agriculture and that it “calls into question USDA’s commitment to U.S. farmers and ranchers”. 

Well, there’s another recent example of industry heavy-handedness.

Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) closed public comments related to its proposed voluntary guidance on antibiotics in animal agriculture—non-mandatory, loophole-laden recommendations for reducing the overuse of antibiotics in livestock operations. Antibiotic use in livestock operations currently accounts for 80% of antibiotics sold in the US.  The vast majority of these antibiotics are fed routinely to chickens, pigs and cows that aren’t even sick, making the livestock industry a major contributor to the decreasing effectiveness of antibiotics when given to sick people.   Livestock operators feed animals antibiotics to fatten up the animals more quickly (“growth promotion”) and to compensate for diseases caused by crowded and unsanitary conditions (“disease prevention”). FDA’s proposed recommendations urge industry to voluntarily eliminate growth promotion uses, but don’t urge the elimination of disease prevention uses.

The livestock industry, which wants to preserve the status quo (even against FDA’s weak suggestions), weighed in with some astonishing claims: 

  •  The American Farm Bureau Federation said that there is insufficient evidence of “on-farm antibiotic use that demonstrates a meaningful risk to humans.” The Farm Bureau went so far as to claim that the Center for Disease Control (CDC), National Institute of Health, and USDA scientists stated that “there is no scientific study linking antibiotic use in food animal production with antibiotic resistance.”                                                                                                            This is a stunning statement given that the CDC wrote to a congressional committee in 2010 that “well-designed and rigorous” studies “establish a clear link between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans,” that there is “strong scientific evidence of a link between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in humans,” and that “there is a compelling body of evidence to demonstrate this link.” 
  • In the face of these conclusions and the large body of scientific literature supporting them, the National Turkey Federation bases its arguments against limits on antibiotic use in pigs, chicken, and cows on a small handful of articles, including those by a scientist about whom the FDA wrote that his “credibility was such that his testimony was so unreliable that it was inadmissible.” 
  • The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) said that it “does not concur with the FDA’s assertion that all production uses of medically important antimicrobials are necessarily injudicious (inappropriate or unnecessary).” Production use of antibiotics is designed to fatten up animals more quickly. The AVMA says this in spite of the fact that major medical associations in the US, including the American Association of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association, as well as the World Health Organization and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science, have all called for an end to the practice. And really, is it necessary or appropriate to routinely feed animals antibiotics so that they put on weight more quickly and are ready for market faster?

If the meat industry and the veterinarians they employ don’t believe the use of antibiotics to speed up animal growth is a problem, what’s the likelihood that leaving the use of these antibiotics to their discretion (as FDA’s proposed voluntary guidance allows) will reduce the misuse of antibiotics and effectively address the major public health risks associated with this practice? It seems plausible, even probable, that the misuse of antibiotics will continue unabated, just under the guise of “disease prevention.”

That’s why NRDC has called on FDA to institute binding, mandatory, limits on the use of antibiotics that preserves the use of antibiotics for sick animals but stops the practice of giving antibiotics to animals as a surrogate for better management practices, whether under the name of growth promotion or disease prevention.

The industry’s playbook is clear: it’s the tried and tested approach of muddying the facts and repeating preferred talking points, hoping the sheer accumulation of repetition will make them seem true, however inaccurate or questionable those claims may be.  

FDA needs to keep its sights on the science and the facts and move decisively to protect public health, by following recent court orders (from March, June, and August) directing it to act and to confront the science on the issue, and by moving forward with the steps necessary to impose binding regulations.

Image courtesy of Stephen & Claire Farnsworth, via Flickr