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Did the FDA ignore the risks of antibiotic use in animals?

Recent evidence suggests that the FDA has known for many years about the dangerous consequences of antibiotic use in farm animals. The overuse of antibiotics on livestock can turn animals into breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and those bacteria have been found in our food. There is evidence that the FDA was aware of this risk as early as 1977, yet has only recently started to act on it.

Before we look antibiotics and their use in livestock, let’s first examine what the FDA’s role is in our society, and the various ways in which they are mandated to ensure public health. Although you might think the Department of Agriculture is responsible for the safety of our meat, the FDA is actually charged with monitoring the use of medications in livestock.

The role of the FDA

The United States Food and Drug administration was established in 1906 and is an agency under the United States Department of Health and Human Services. They are charged with extensive responsibilities including:

  • Protecting the public health by assuring that foods (except for meat from livestock, poultry and some egg products which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) are safe, wholesome, sanitary and properly labeled; ensuring that human and veterinary drugs, and vaccines and other biological products and medical devices intended for human use are safe and effective
  • Protecting the public from electronic product radiation
  • Assuring cosmetics and dietary supplements are safe and properly labeled
  • Regulating tobacco products
  • Advancing the public health by helping to speed product innovations

Recent revelations seem to indicate that the administration has fallen short in “ensuring that human and veterinary drugs … are safe and effective”. More specifically, the FDA appears to have failed when it comes to the overuse of antibiotics on farms. This subject has been the source of contention for between farmers, environmental activists and medical professionals for decades. It is important to understand the roots of the issue in order to fully appreciate the significance of recent developments.

What are antibiotics, and what is the danger?

Antibiotics are substances that kill, or inhibit the growth of, other microorganisms. Commonly these microorganisms are bacteria, but they can sometimes be fungal. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses or conditions caused by viruses.

The best known and earliest antibiotic of note is Penicillin. Although Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin in 1928, it wasn’t until 1945 that the drug underwent mass production and distribution. It had a tremendous impact on disease control, curing dozens of infections. For example, the pre-penicillin rate of Typhoid Fever in the United States was about 35,000 cases annually, compared to about 400 annually in modern times. Penicillin, its derivatives and other antibiotics enjoyed a robust period of discovery and development from the 1950s through the 1970s, but that pipeline of new drugs has since dwindled to almost nothing. In 2008 there were only two new antibiotics produced by pharmaceutical companies.

The dearth of new antibiotics is underscored by an even greater concern: the growing resistance of bacteria to the antibiotics that are still in use. Antibiotic resistance is when a bacterium develops the ability to resist the effects of an antibiotic to which it was once susceptible. Misuse of antibiotics, including both their overuse and their use in conditions where they aren’t warranted (like viral infections), can result in bacteria developing resistance. Fleming himself warned of this possibility over 50 years ago.

The threat has been realized and is getting worse. In a 2013 report (1) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is estimated that antibiotic-resistant germs sicken 2 million Americans per year, and kill 23,000. The financial impact on the healthcare system from antibiotic-resistant germs is believed to be above $20 billion per year.

Antibiotics and farming

Antibiotics aren’t just being used on humans. They are used, and overused, on farm animals as well. (2) The use of antibiotics on healthy animals has unfortunately become routine in many countries. They are used in squalid conditions to prevent healthy animals from getting sick, and they have also been shown to promote growth.
These consistent low doses of antibiotics come with a serious cost. By giving them to animals on a regular basis, those animals are liable to become breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our food

To demonstrate the enormity of the situation, consider figures from 2011 that show over 29 million pounds of antibiotics were sold for use in meat and poultry, compared to a little more than 7 million pounds that were sold for human treatments.

A further problem with the overuse of antibiotics on farm animals is that these animals end up as part of the human food chain. An FDA report from April 2013 found 39% of chicken, 55% of ground beef, 69% of pork chops and 81% of raw ground turkey tested by the agency contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These bacteria can pass along their resistance to bacteria in humans.

FDA action, or lack thereof?

Recently the FDA has appeared to take steps to address the overuse of antibiotics on farm animals. In December 2013 the FDA announced a plan (3) requiring that pharmaceutical companies change the labeling on antibiotics that are used on animals and also prescribed for people. This would prevent those drugs from being used for growth enhancement and feed efficiency in animals. The changes would only allow those drugs to “be used in food-producing animals to treat, prevent or control disease under the order of or by prescription from a licensed veterinarian.”

On the surface this seems like progress, but critics have pointed out that not only is the plan flawed, it may have come decades too late. The major flaw in the plan is that it is voluntary. The two major pharmaceutical companies are Pfizer’s animal-drug subsidiary Zoetis, and Elanco. Both have said they will comply with the plan, but the truth is they do not have to. Also, there is no word if other, smaller companies will decide to ignore the plan, and whether that will result in farmers turning to them for these drugs instead.

Additionally, the timeliness of the plan is suspect. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) obtained information that indicates the FDA knew about this danger decades ago, but failed to act until now. According to the NRDC press release from January, 2014:

In 1977, the agency itself concluded 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, and posed a risk to human health. Since then, the science on the human health risks of these practices has only gotten stronger but drugs sales for livestock use have continued to trend upwards nearly unchecked.

The NRDC goes on to describe the voluntary FDA plan as “loop-hole ridden”, and they seem to have a point. For the rest of us, this highlights what many in the alternative health community have been saying for years – always make sure that your meat is organic and raised without antibiotics.

References and Further Reading

1. CDC, 2013. “Untreatable: Report by CDC details today’s drug-resistant health threats”. http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2013/p0916-untreatable.html.
2. Care2.com, 2013. “FDA Finally Takes Steps to Curb Overuse of Antibiotics on Farms”. http://www.care2.com/causes/fda-finally-takes-steps-to-curb-overuse-of-antibiotics-on-farms.html.
3. FDA, 2013. “Phasing Out Certain Antibiotic Use in Farm Animals”. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm378100.htm.
4. NRDC, 2014. “Newly Disclosed Documents Show FDA Allows Livestock Antibiotics Use Despite “High Risk” to Humans”. http://www.nrdc.org/media/2014/140127a.asp.