The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent deal with the farm antibiotic industry to voluntarily phase out the use of antibiotics as animal growth promoters sounds like a real step forward — until you look at the details. That’s because this action does nothing to stop the ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming nor does it prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It may also harm many sustainable farmers.
Protecting public health is one of the FDA’s key responsibilities. Sadly the agency has remained largely impotent in addressing rampant antibiotic use on industrial farms, largely due to the powerful meat and pharmaceutical industry lobby. Despite mounting public pressure to take real action, the FDA has focused on persuading the meat industry to voluntarily phase out using some antibiotics considered medically important for humans.
In late December 2013, the FDA proposed that major “farmaceutical” manufacturers voluntarily withdraw certain antibiotics used to speed animal growth, and relabel those antibiotics to require veterinary approval before farmers could use them. The FDA gave the antibiotic manufacturers three months to notify the agency whether they intended to comply with the proposal. At the end of March, the FDA announced that 25 of the 26 manufacturers had agreed to adopt the voluntary measures.
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Despite these manufacturers previously denying any possible link between widespread antibiotic use on industrial farms and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria over the last four decades, we now have a situation in which almost every major manufacturer has signed on to the FDA’s voluntary approach. Why? Because they know the agreement won’t change a thing on industrial farms.
What’s more, the meat industry is quite aware that this agreement — if left unchanged — could harm independent farm businesses already using antibiotics responsibly. After all, these farms — not exactly their best customers — present a small but growing threat to the entire antibiotic-reliant industrial farming model.
Antibiotic agreement penalizes smaller farms
Many farm antibiotics now are available “over the counter” at any feed store in the U.S. Clearly, some form of control is necessary to prevent misuse or abuse. Under the FDA’s new agreement, the reclassification of antibiotics as “prescription only” would require every farm business to get a vet’s OK each time it buys an antibiotic. On the face of it, this seems like a sensible way to rein in the abuse of antibiotics on farms. But in practice, it could put tens of thousands of independent family farms out of business.
Smaller farms often work on tight margins and vets can be very expensive — particularly when all you need them to do is tell you something you might already know: This animal needs a course of antibiotics to get better. What’s more, in some parts of the U.S. there are few — if any — vets available. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, only 15% of qualified vets work with farm animals. Under the FDA’s voluntary agreement, we could see a situation in which the very farmers who use antibiotics only as a last resort could face the appalling choice of letting animals suffer for lack of sufficient veterinary oversight or breaking the law and treating their animals without a vet’s input.
Real danger lies with industrial operations
It’s important to remind ourselves that the risk of antibiotic abuse — and antibiotic-resistant bacteria — does not come from pasture-based, high-welfare farming systems. No, the real hazards come from large-scale industrial confinement operations in which low-dose antibiotics are routinely used to speed growth or to prevent inevitable outbreaks of disease. It is this ongoing abuse of antibiotics on an industrial scale that the FDA needs to address.
The FDA’s voluntary agreement leaves the door wide open for such continued antibiotic abuse on industrial farms. As agricultural commentator Tom Philpott says, “There is little distinction between giving animals small daily doses of antibiotics to prevent disease and giving them small daily doses to make them put on weight. The industry can simply claim it’s using antibiotics ‘preventively,’ continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continuing to generate resistant bacteria. That’s the loophole.”
These concerns are echoed by Dr. Raymond Tarpley of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science at Texas A&M University. He recently wrote that “if low-dose concentrations of antibiotics continue to be allowed for preventative use (even by prescription), they provide a ‘back door’ through which growth promotion effects can still be exploited under another name.” Perhaps that’s why Juan Ramon Alaix, CEO of Zoetis — the world’s largest animal pharmaceutical company — recently said that the new FDA agreement would not substantially affect the company’s revenue.
The real win for the industrial livestock lobby is that we’re not even talking about enforceable regulations, with the threat of legal action against any noncompliance. No, this is simply a gentlemen’s agreement among the major farmaceutical corporations to abide by the FDA’s voluntary guidelines. While the FDA contends that this “collaborative approach is the fastest way to implement the changes” it seeks, others are less supportive.
New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, who has long campaigned to end the misuse of antibiotics in industrial farming, says the agreement “falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.” As Slaughter points out, without the necessary resources to police antibiotic use on farms — or even gather data on antibiotic use on individual farms — we are effectively relying on the intensive meat industry to put public health ahead of its profits.
The intensive livestock industry has manipulated this whole situation to protect its own interests.
When you consider that the FDA first accepted the evidence of a link between antibiotic use in farming and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria back in 1977 — and has not done anything substantial about the issue since — you begin to wonder if protecting public health is an FDA priority at all.
Animal Welfare Approved, where I am program director, has long argued for strict regulations to control antibiotic use on farms. We have supported Slaughter’s efforts to end the inappropriate and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in intensive farming systems. From the outset we have raised concerns that the FDA’s voluntary proposals would be ineffective at reducing antibiotic abuse on industrial farms and would devastate thousands of high-welfare, sustainable family farms across the U.S.
Animal Welfare Approved intends to keep pressing the FDA and others to ensure that high-animal-welfare, sustainable farmers have access to antibiotics to treat individual sick animals — without going out of business in the process. And we will continue to support and promote the independent family farms striving to feed this nation sustainably while protecting human health, animal welfare and the planet.
Main photo: A plan for phasing out antibiotics in animal feed could hurt sustainable farms. Credit: istockphoto.com