A resurgence in the discussion of antibiotic (over)use in large-scale animal agriculture has emerged in light of the antibiotic-resistant Salmonella outbreak linked to ground turkey.
A group of Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the FDA on Tuesday urging it to speed up the implementation of guidelines to help manage drug use in food animal production. The FDA has already received over 500 comments on a draft guidance released last summer that recommends two principles:
(1) The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should be limited to those uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health, and
(2) The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should be limited to those uses that include veterinary oversight or consultation.
No timeline on the document has been announced, but the change from automatically giving livestock antibiotics in their feed and water daily (to prematurely avoid animal sickness and hasten growth, thus expediting their time to market), to only treating them when a real medical concern exists, would be a drastic reduction.
According to the FDA, 80 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are given to food-producing animals, the vast majority for non-therapeutic purposes. The resulting increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or "superbugs," has many public health advocates concerned, with constant criticism of the agency's exceedingly slow and cumbersome attempts to address a serious problem.
A study published today in Environmental Health Perspectives found that conventional poultry farmers who switched to organic practices (ending their use of antibiotics) lowered the rates of bacteria resistant to drugs. Robert Lawrence, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (which funded the research in its early stages), said the findings "confirm what has long been suspected but never documented in the U.S."
As deadly outbreaks regrettably continue, and more dangerous "superbugs" inhibit treatment of foodborne illnesses, adequate oversight remains past due. It’s increasingly essential for the government to acknowledge the problem -- or at least allow transparency in the conversation (unlike the recent move by USDA to take down research from its website that links antibiotic use in animals with resistant bacteria) -- as well as hold industry accountable when its practices put the public's health at risk.
Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.