President's budget: More funding, but still missing key goals for curbing livestock use of antibiotics

Today the White House issued a press release and fact sheet announcing a near doubling of the Administration's budget to fighting the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. That's good news and a clear indication that the menace of antibiotic resistance is being felt at the highest levels of the Obama Administration. Unfortunately, however, there's no sign from the Administration that the budget increase will be used to actually require significant antibiotic use reduction or compel antibiotic use reporting by the livestock industry.

The President's announcement states: "Antibiotic resistance is one of the most pressing public health issues facing the world today." Doctors are sounding the alarm because antibiotics essential for human medicine are beginning to fail. Antibiotic resistance results from the over-use of antibiotics by both humans and farm animals. Simply put, when we use these drugs routinely, some bacteria survive and multiply, spreading resistance to precious antibiotics that are needed for human medicine. Amazingly, approximately 80% of all antibiotics sold in the United States are sold for livestock use, often to make animals grow faster or to compensate for crowded, unsanitary, stressful confinement conditions.

The Food and Drug Administration announced a "voluntary guidance" in early 2014 which calls on pharmaceutical companies to phase out the use of livestock antibiotics to make the animals grow faster. However, the guidance is voluntary and is compromised by an enormous loophole that would allow most, and perhaps nearly all, use to continue. Pharmaceutical industry leaders have said publically that the new guidance will have little impact in reducing over-all drug sales (see previous link). Unfortunately, today's news from the White House lacks any new indication that the Obama Administration intends to seek more meaningful limits.

Similarly, the announcement lacks any mention of funding for antibiotic use reporting by livestock producers. Antibiotic use information is currently held secret by livestock companies, leaving regulators, scientists and the public in the dark about specific use practices, trends, risk hot spots or success stories. FDA tracks the volumes of drugs sold, but does not collect the data needed to track and understand drug use within the industry.

I do thank the President for raising the importance of this issue and putting more resources into this critical fight against antibiotic resistant bacteria. But until we have meaningful requirements to reduce the livestock use of antibiotics, and a comprehensive system for tracking antibiotic use, I fear the microbes will remain on the winning side.