Last Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration quietly published its first-ever estimate of the amount of antibiotics sold for use in livestock animals in the United States. The number: 29 million pounds in 2009.
Along with the estimate of antibiotics sold, the FDA released the names of antimicrobial drugs approved for use in food-producing animals. According to Siobhan DeLancey, staff member in the FDA Office of Public Affairs, the Animal Drugs User Fee Act requires the FDA to collect and publish this information annually.
"This is the first year, so its significance is yet to be determined," DeLancey said. "Its real purpose is to provide a benchmark for comparison of future data."
The FDA report comes on the heels of the agency's draft guidance released last July that recommended limiting the use of antibiotics in livestock agriculture. At the time, Joshua M. Sharfstein, the FDA's principal deputy commissioner, said antibiotics should be used only to protect the health of an animal and not to help it grow or improve the way it digests its feed.
"FDA concludes that the overall weight of evidence available to date supports the conclusion that using medically important antimicrobial drugs for production purposes is not in the interest of protecting and promoting the public health," Sharfstein said in his testimony at the time. "Developing strategies for reducing antimicrobial resistance is critically important for protecting both public and animal health."
Delancey said the FDA "is committed to prevention of antimicrobial resistance" and that agency staff members are currently reviewing public comments on the draft guidance.
What's at stake?
Although the FDA's efforts are far from perfect, most critics of the unnecessary use of antibiotics in animal food production applaud the FDA for acting on the issue. "I'm happy that the FDA is finally addressing the issue of antibiotics in livestock," said Dave Carter, executive director of the Westminster, Colo.-based National Bison Association. "The evidence is steadily growing that the regular use of antibiotics as a growth promoter in livestock is contributing to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can impact human health."
"Using [antibiotics] to get a steer from birth to slaughter a few weeks earlier is a very high price to pay when the cost is compromising the effectiveness of those antibiotics on our health," Carter said.
The meaning of numbers
Is 29 million pounds an accurate estimate of antibiotics used for livestock production? "It's totally consistent with other information we've had," said Steve Roach, public health program director for Food Animal Concerns Trust, a Chicago-based animal welfare organization that is also a member of the Chicago-based campaign Keep Antibiotics Working.
The Animal Health Institute, which represents veterinary drug manufacturers, surveyed AHI members to come up with its estimate of the total use of livestock antibiotics in 2004: 21.7 million pounds. In 2001, the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, which, among other things, aims to rein in the use of antibiotics in livestock, put total antibiotic use at 24.6 million pounds per year for “non-therapeutic purposes”—that is, for prevention and control of disease as well as for growth promotion.
According to Roach, 70 percent of antibiotics are used for food animals. FDA data will serve as a measure of the agency's effectiveness at reducing antibiotic use over time. "As the FDA takes steps to reduce antibiotics, we can see if they're working based on these annual estimates," Roach said.
Some of the FDA's measures related to antibiotic use include:
- Drafting guidance on limiting medically important antimicrobial drugs to uses in food-producing animals that are considered necessary for animal health.
- Implementing guidance for the animal drug industry for evaluating the potential antimicrobial resistance of new drugs.
- Coordinating with the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System to track antibiotic resistance in foodborne bacteria.
- Requiring antimicrobial drug sponsors to annual report to the FDA the amount of drugs sold or distributed for use in food-producing animals.
What should you do?
Roach pointed out that the FDA's latest report fails on two fronts: It doesn't reveal how the antibiotics are used, whether in animal feed or water; and the FDA lumped together drugs used in human medicine with those not used in human medicine. Roach is more concerned with the antibiotics used for feed because they pose a greater risk for resistance and those used for human medicine because they have the greater public health impact.
"The FDA has this data, but [the agency] isn't making it public," Roach said. "I think the FDA needs to look at drugs approved and figure out which ones are causing problems— public health risks—and take them off market."
Other countries have done so. On January 1, 2006, the European Union banned the feeding of all antibiotics and related drugs to livestock for growth promotion purposes. The new policy followed a 1998 ban on the feeding of antibiotics that are valuable in human medicine to livestock for growth promotion.
To oppose the unnecessary use of antibiotics in animal food production, Roach recommended consumers contact their members of Congress and the FDA and let them know that an industry guidance doesn't go far enough. Consumers can also vote with their pocketbooks by buying only antibiotic-free meat. Natural products stores can carry only organic meat. USDA Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics.