Headline in the NY Times: U.S. Tightens Rules on Antibiotics Use for Livestock. The lede:
Farmers and ranchers will for the first time need a prescription from a veterinarian before using antibiotics in farm animals, in hopes that more judicious use of the drugs will reduce the tens of thousands of human deaths that result each year from the drugs’ overuse.
Need a prescription? Really? Not according to the FDA press release or the FDA’s actual new policy in Guidance for Industry #209, “The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals.”
Background: factory farms (or Confined Animal Feeding Operations) in the U.S. routinely dose the animals with “subtherapeutic” doses of antibiotics. CAFO’s are intensely unhealthy places and animals are likely to succumb to a range of bacterial (and other) diseases. But low doses of antibiotics seem to make them grow a bit faster too, for reasons not entirely understood. Therapeutic antibiotics use — i.e., treatment of individual sick animals — is incredibly rare compared to the regular daily dosing in feed. Over 24 million pounds a year — over 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. — go to healthy animals rather than sick humans.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have grown to be a major problem in the U.S., killing around 100,000 people every year (around 5x as many AIDS deaths in No. America each year).
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have now been conclusively linked to the irresponsible practices in CAFO’s. The good thing about FDA’s Guidance #209 is that it recognizes this, with a nice little summary of scientific research on the problem.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that after recognizing the scope of the problem, the FDA is doing practically nothing to solve it. All it has to offer is recommendations…
Just to make sure we’re clear, they are non-binding…
It states that antibiotics used for humans should be given to animals only with a prescription from a veterinarian, but makes it clear that…
Anyway the guidance goes on to water down the recommendation on prescriptions, saying just that veterinarians “should be in involved in the decision-making process regarding antimicrobial drug use.”
The Times reporter has been persuaded by someone that the meat producers, veterinarians, and antibiotic manufacturers will now happily clean up their act, based on this recommendation. I’d love to be wrong, but I think this is ludicrous.
Meanwhile, Guidance #209 is completely oblivious to many thousand small meat producers who give animals healthy pastured lives. These animals eat grass, not antibiotic-laced feed corn, but they occasionally get infections requiring a course of antibiotics (even organic meat standards allow therapeutic treatments). There are less than 10,000 large animal veterinarians in the U.S., and for a small farmer to hire a vet to visit the farm when one cow has an eye infection is impossible and unnecessary.
From the standpoint of the farmers who aren’t misusing antibiotics, it’s good that the FDA policy is toothless.
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