FDA's Plan for Antibiotic Abuse on Industrial Farms: A Weak Effort in the Fight Against Superbugs

(A similar version of this post first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.)

Almost 40 years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that the practice of routinely feeding antibiotics to livestock that are not sick posed a risk to human health. Last week, after decades of delay, the FDA issued a weak, partial, and voluntary guidance to address this problem.

The industrial farms that produce most of the pork, beef and chicken we eat use antibiotics to speed up growth or to compensate for the filthy, crowded environments in which animals are kept. The medical community and public health groups have been warning for years that this practice encourages the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The CDC reported this year that infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria (or superbugs, as they are often called) kill at least 23,000 Americans every year. Antibiotic-resistant infections also complicate treatment, often reducing treatment options and leading to longer, more expensive illnesses.

By finally releasing its plan, the FDA has made clear that antibiotic abuse jeopardizes human health, and that it intends to reduce at least some of the uses of antibiotics on animals that are not sick. That’s the good news. We need the FDA to be vocal on this issue. But here’s the bad news: FDA’s strategy is simply not good enough. It only addresses part of the problem, and it’s voluntary. No one has to change a thing.

First, the FDA has requested that the pharmaceutical industry stop selling antibiotics for some non-treatment uses. If they want to. Contrary to some media reports, this is not a ban. The FDA has embraced a voluntary approach, much to the delight of trade groups and despite the fact that this approach has yielded no change to date. In fact, despite repeated warnings from the medical community, the amount of antibiotics sold for livestock has been steadily increasing over the past decade.

Second, the FDA policy focuses on only some of the problematic uses of over-the-counter antibiotics in the livestock industry: antibiotics sold to speed up animal growth. But many of those same antibiotics are also used for disease prevention, in an attempt to compensate for unsanitary conditions on industrial farms. This practice will likely continue unabated, because under the new FDA policy, drug companies can simply drop the label for growth promotion and continue to sell the same antibiotic for disease prevention. Moreover, even if a company elects to accept greater veterinary oversight, the FDA has proposed loosening the rules for such oversight and to continue to allow antibiotic use for disease prevention. The CEO of a leading manufacturer of livestock drugs recently told the Wall Street Journal that the new policy was not expected to have a significant effect on company revenues.

In a recent editorial, The Los Angeles Times said that “[i]n the absence of federal law, the FDA has produced a useful template for keeping these crucial drugs effective for humans for as long as possible.” The fact is, federal law does allow the FDA to take action, but the agency is tiptoeing around its authority to act. As a result of an NRDC lawsuit, a federal court has mandated that FDA use its authority to stop the use of antibiotics in animal feed when that use isn’t safe. The FDA doesn’t need to ask industry nicely. It can move to require stricter controls now. The agency has appealed two decisions from federal district court, and claims its polite requests to stop poor practices will get the job done. We have some doubts about that.

Sick people, and sick animals, need antibiotics that work. Reversing the tide of antibiotic abuse on industrial farms will take more than voluntary guidance from the FDA. The agency has been dragging its feet on this issue for more than 35 years. NRDC’s case against the FDA is currently pending in federal appeals court. We hope that decision will finally result in the FDA taking more effective action.