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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

Antibiotic Curtailed for Animals, But FDA Should Go Further

Food Integrity Campaign | January 5, 2012

The FDA made a notable announcement yesterday related to combating the ongoing threat of human antibiotic resistance – increasingly linked to antibiotic overuse in food-producing animals.

The agency issued a new order limiting the use of cephalosporins, a class of antimicrobial drugs, given to cattle, swine and poultry. In order to reduce the presence of pathogens resistant to cephalosporin and maintain its effective use for treating pneumonia and other infections in humans, the FDA order prohibits unapproved uses of the drug — including for disease prevention, rather than treatment once an animal is sick.

As pointed out by Food Safety News, cephalosporin-resistant bacteria could make it difficult to treat people sickened by contaminated food:

Two foodborne illnesses – Salmonella and Shigella infections – are commonly treated with these drugs. It is via these bacteria that cephalosporin resistance is thought to be transmitted from animals to humans.

Each year, 9 billion broiler eggs are processed in America, and the majority of them are injected with cephalosporins. The drug is also widely administered to cattle for disease prevention. These practices will be banned under the new rule.

The move is an important one … but less strict than limits the FDA proposed in 2008 and rescinded due to opposition from veterinarians, farmers and drug companies, according to the New York Times. (The new rule still allows veterinary discretion on cephalosporin use not specifically approved by FDA to treat sick animals, appeasing the American Veterinary Medical Association as well as Pfizer, which makes cephalosporins used in animals.)

Furthermore, cephalosporins make up a small percentage of the antibiotics used in industrial animal agriculture. The Center for a Livable Future, a group that has been trying to bring transparency to this issue for some time, has called attention to the fact that important medicine used for human health (penicillin and tetracycline) were used on a large-scale in food-producing animals in 2009 (with much higher levels than cephalosporins). The same goes for 2010 levels. Yet just before the holidays, the FDA quietly backed away from considering these two widely used drugs for regulation in animal feed, despite the growing threat of antibiotic resistance.

Instead, the agency insists on “voluntary reform” on the industry’s part, making it evident that it is only willing to do the minimum amount in terms of standing up to Big Ag interests (which equal the overuse of antibiotics). If the government isn’t going to hold food producers accountable, it’s another reason honest whistleblowers need to be protected within the meat and poultry industries. Just as the GAO report released in September exposed, a lot of the specifics on antibiotic use in agriculture is kept from the public. Industry insiders look to be our only option at bringing necessary transparency to serious threats to human health and safety.

The GAO report’s claim that U.S. agencies have made limited progress on addressing antibiotic resistance still rings true. Limiting cephalosporins is a historic move indeed, but ultimately, there is a lot more the agency could be doing to tackle this issue, including loosening the stronghold that industry has on government decision-making.


Sarah Damian is Communications Manager for the Food Integrity Campaign.