FDA Takes Soft Approach Against Deadly Superbugs

The Food and Drug Administration claims to want to reduce non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Currently, farmed animals are administered antibiotics through feed or drinking water to make them quickly gain weight and ward off disease in crowded, filthy, inhumane living conditions. Such uses account for nearly 80 percent of antibiotic consumption in the United States and contribute to the development of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria—a significant threat to public health. To combat this threat, the FDA recently issued a guidance document informing pharmaceutical companies of how they can voluntarily help reduce the amount of antibiotics given to animals.

The guidance recommends that such companies remove growth enhancement and feed efficiency from the list of approved uses of their antibiotics. The FDA also requests that pharmaceutical companies mandate veterinary oversight in therapeutic usage of antibiotics. But the guidance considers disease prevention a therapeutic use—leaving a large loophole in an already toothless document that allows industry to continue to use antibiotics to compensate for deplorable livestock living conditions. Yet, according to the FDA, voluntary measures are the fastest ways to stop antimicrobial resistance.

Many who are active in food safety issues condemned the new FDA guidance. Congress’s only microbiologist, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), for one, believes that the voluntary guidance—with its lack of enforcement mechanism—is an insufficient response to the problem. The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMPTA), sponsored by Rep. Slaughter, would do more to fight antimicrobial-resistant bacteria because it is a mandatory measure that would allow certain antibiotics to be used only to treat illnesses in humans and animals. Robert Lawrence, founder and director of Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future, similarly believes the guidance will have a minimal impact and “provides a disincentive [for industry] to clean up their facilities.” It seems certain that the FDA will need to take several more concrete steps if it plans to seriously combat this significant public health threat.

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