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Will Antibiotic Pact Harm Sustainable Farms?

A plan for phasing out antibiotics in animal feed could hurt sustainable farms. Credit:

Plan for phasing out antibiotics in animal feed could hurt sustainable farms. Credit:

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.

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.”

Andrew Gunter of Animal Welfare Approved says federal-industry pact won't stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy Animal Welfare Approved

Andrew Gunther of Animal Welfare Approved says the federal-industry pact won’t stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Approved

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:

Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Andrew Gunther is program director at Animal Welfare Approved, a nonprofit program that audits, certifies, supports and promotes family farmers raising their animals under the highest welfare standards, outdoors on pastures or ranges. The AWA standards have been rated "most stringent" by the World Society for the Protection of Animals.  

  • Lauramk 6·23·14

    Thank you for the interesting article. I enjoyed reading it, but found several confusing or possibly unintentionally misleading statements.

    First, voluntary compliance is the way the FDA “enforces” most of its rulings from Salmonella control in eggs to pasteurization standards. (This is why the cheese-board rule seemed so unusual). Voluntary compliance is business as usual for the FDA, not anything caused by the pressure of pharmaceutical lobbyists as you implied. What happens (or what has happened in the past) is that consumer awareness and subsequent market forces, in conjunction with the rules promulgated by FDA, help to ensure voluntary compliance. It has usually worked in the past.

    Secondly, while overuse of antibiotics on farms probably contributes to SOME of the mounting antibiotic resistance we have seen over the past few decades, there are many other causes as well. Some other causes include: 1.) Human misuse and overuse (such as popping antibiotics for viral infections and only taking partial doses); 2.) Use of antibiotic analogs in household and industrial cleaners (i.e. Triclosan and related chemicals); and 3.) Modern drug-discovery practices (i.e. producing antibiotics with increasingly narrow molecular targets so that organisms only need a single mutation or small set of mutations to become resistant). Even if there is really great voluntary compliance to the ag antibiotic use rule (including “preventative” use), we will still have a massive antibiotic resistance problem on our hands.

    I personally feel that any step in the right direction is a good one. Existing regs can be tweaked and are better than no regs at all.

  • Andrew Gunther 6·23·14

    Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to comment. Let me deal with your second point first. Antibiotics are a societal drug. In other words, if I misuse, say, a medication that my doctor had prescribed for blood pressure, any misuse or abuse would only hurt me. If I abuse an antibiotic, however, the impact is far worse and could affect others—potentially everyone. That’s my position on antibiotic use, whether it is for human or animal antibiotic use. I absolutely agree there are other causes for the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and that human antibiotic misuse and abuse of these vital medicines must be addressed. However, my area of work is farming, and the focus of my blog is thus related to antibiotic misuse and abuse in industrial farming.

    There is now a clear scientific consensus that the widespread abuse of antibiotics in industrial farming systems is a leading causal factor in the dramatic rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria over recent decades. These drugs are being squandered in vast quantities simply to prop up what is a failed farming system. We cannot allow the continued abuse of antibiotics in livestock systems simply for the unsustainable production and consumption of cheap animal protein and for corporate profits. While USDA/FDA may well rely on voluntary guidance measures to achieve most of their ends, as the custodian of the nation’s health they also have a mandate to act when public health is at risk. The loss of antibiotics is considered by the likes of the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the gravest threats to mankind. I think that’s justification enough for some pretty serious regulatory intervention, don’t you?

    You imply that the FDA’s plans to introduce voluntary guidelines on the use of medically important antimicrobials in food animals is evidence that appropriate action is now being taken to address concerns about the abuse of antibiotics in farming. However, numerous critics have already highlighted the wholesale inadequacies and ineffectiveness of the FDA’s proposals in addressing this looming public health crisis. Bear in mind, too, that the FDA first accepted the evidence of a link between antibiotic use in farming and the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria back in 1977, and nothing has happened. Time and again, the USDA/FDA have cowed to industry pressure, despite ever-mounting scientific evidence of the urgent need to act.

    You’ll have to forgive me when I say your faith in the industry to self-regulate is simply naïve. I have spent too many years listening to the tedious and pedantic denials from the industry of any causal link between the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the routine abuse of subtherapeutic antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention in industrial farming. I have also watched first-hand as meat and farmaceutical industry-funded lobbyists and front groups have fought tooth and nail against any attempt to regulate the use of antibiotics in farming. If you honestly believe that Big Ag and Big Pharma—or any big industry for that matter—do not have a direct influence on the development and implementation of U.S. government policy then you are very sadly mistaken. Corporations spend billions on lobbying government to achieve their own ends and to ensure desirable policy outcomes, and the agricultural and pharmaceutical lobbies are among the most powerful and vociferous.

    What’s more, a quick Google search will reveal that many key players in the meat and pharmaceutical industry still deny any link between antibiotic abuse in farming and life-threatening antibiotic resistant bacteria. If they still don’t even accept any responsibility—despite massive scientific evidence to the contrary—what makes you think they have now suddenly decided to put public health ahead of corporate profit? The time for self-regulation (or however you want to dress it up) has long passed. In light of the public health threats we now face, we need urgent regulation and effective enforcement now.

    Finally, this isn’t just about the inadequacy of the voluntary compliance measures being proposed, or the lack of industry accountability or commitment to protecting human health. It’s also about the unintended consequences of this particular voluntary proposal on high-welfare farmers who are already using antibiotics appropriately and judiciously, and who are—ironically—most likely to suffer. Whether the ultimate outcome is regulation or voluntary guidance, we must be cognizant that we don’t put harm good farmers at the same time.