Yesterday, the FDA came out swinging (with a Wiffle ball bat) against the medically unnecessary use of antibiotics in animal feed (by politely asking the drug companies that make piles of cash off these drugs to please stop selling so many of them to farmers just to encourage tissue growth). To demonstrate just how weak this (in)action is, one need look no further than the enthusiastic response from the nation’s huge meat and drug companies.
It’s much like when parents punish a kid by telling him he’s not allowed out of his room, where he has unfettered access to his computer, TV, phone, and Super Nintendo. Things are no different, but the parents feel like they’ve done something.
The Wall Street Journal writes about how the farmers and ranchers of America — the industry that buys 80% of the antibiotics sold in this country — are happy with the FDA’s guidance because, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, they don’t really force-feed their animals large amounts of unnecessary drugs.
According to the Journal, “Many in the industry say they are cautious, providing the medicines only as a measure to prevent or treat illness,” while reps for the American Meat Institute say it “supports the prudent and judicious use of antibiotics in food animal production under the care of a veterinarian.”
And yet farm animals consume nearly 30 million pounds a year in antibiotics, more than four times the 7.9 million pounds prescribed annually to humans. Caroline DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest points out that only a small fraction of the antibiotics given to farm animals (about 5%) is unique to livestock. The rest of the drugs being fed to these animals is also used to treat disease in humans.
So either farm animals are incredibly sick all the time and need these drugs to get well, or the meat industry no idea what the words “prudent and judicious” mean.
The industry is ignoring (or maybe just hasn’t gotten around to reading; they are awfully busy) all the scientific evidence showing that overuse of prophylactic antibiotics ultimately results in drug-resistant pathogens, like the ones that make more than 2 million Americans ill each year. This is why, DeWaal adds, “we don’t generally use antibiotics to either prevent disease in classrooms or promote growth in our children.”
Avinash Kar of the Natural Resources Defense Council says that all of this talk from the industry about using antibiotics preventatively is just “hiding the problem in plain sight.”
“Preventive use is use on animals that are not sick, to prevent diseases often associated with crowded and dirty conditions on many industrial farms,” adds Kar. “That’s a big category of use.”
He points out that many antibiotics are already approved for both growth promotion and disease control uses, so the drug companies and farmers are correct when they say that the FDA guidance won’t have much impact, but only because it does little to change which drugs are actually being provided to the farm animals, just the stated use.
And this prediction is effectively confirmed by drug biggies Eli Lilly and Zoetis, which both tell the Journal that they don’t expect to take much of a hit in sales because of the FDA guidance.
“If the policy has no impact on the use of these drugs in animal production, then consumer and public health advocates have lost,” says DeWaal.
“Producers could simply continue to use the antibiotics the same way as they always have for ‘prevention,’” Kar explains.
“There’s still going to be blanket overuse of antibiotics for prevention purposes, which are just-in-case uses,” says Laura Rogers from the Pew Charitable Trusts. “Antibiotics should always be the last option in food production.”
One farmer quoted in the Journal story claims, “These guidelines are not going to change the way I do anything with the beef cattle on my farm.”
Counters Kar, “That’s precisely the problem.”