Antibiotics, Animals, and the FDA

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  • 01/20/2014

From the pages of the San Jose Mercury News ...

Antibiotics in animals: In food safety, a noteworthy policy consensus

By Peter J. Pitts

It's always a surprise -- and therefore newsworthy -- when opposing groups in Washington, D.C., find common ground and a policy moves forward at the national level.

That's what happened recently when the Food and Drug Administration published documents implementing its policy that medically important antibiotics should only be used when there's a disease or a disease threat. As a result, "growth promotion" uses will be phased out over the next three years. An accompanying rule will require a veterinarian to oversee the use of medically important antibiotics in feed.

The policy ensures antibiotics that are similar to those used in humans will be used in animals in the same way: to address a specific disease or disease threat, and only under the supervision of a licensed medical professional. It affects farms nationally, making state-based efforts -- including those in California -- unnecessary.

This collaborative effort is noteworthy for animals, veterinarians and the millions of Americans who depend on those animals for food supply.

The FDA and animal health representatives share broad agreement on this national position. Animal health organizations, along with the companies that develop animal antibiotic medicines, have supported the policy since its inception and announcement in 2012. Consumer organizations that have criticized the use of antibiotics in agriculture asked for this policy in a letter to the White House in 2009 and supported the FDA's announcement.

While some have criticized the policy as being voluntary, the fact is that the FDA has succeeded because it pursued its agenda in a collaborative way. The agency met with everyone involved, including farmers and ranchers, the pharmaceutical industry and consumer groups, to understand and address concerns.

As a result of this collaboration, the agency has enacted change more quickly than with a regulatory or legislative approach. On the day the agency released the documents, the two largest companies selling these products publicly announced their support and cooperation. Other companies have 90 days to make their intentions known.

The other benefit of this collaborative approach is that it should avoid the unintended consequences that resulted when Europe legislated a ban on growth promotion uses of antibiotics. That ban resulted in increased animal disease and death. The FDA's collaborative approach gives farmers and ranchers the chance to adjust to these changes more gradually and avoid these negative consequences.

The policy is a significant change in the way antibiotics are used to keep food animals healthy. It is unfortunate that many seem to think that antibiotics are used only "to fatten animals." That's not true, but now no medically important antibiotics will be used to promote growth. In addition, no antibiotic will be used in feed unless a licensed veterinarian verifies that it is needed to treat or prevent a disease.

Consumers should be heartened by this development. While eliminating what the FDA believes to be unnecessary uses of antibiotics, the limited and important uses needed to protect animal health with continue.

That's important, because animals get sick -- just like humans do.

Farmers and veterinarians work hard to prevent disease and avoid the use of medicines to treat disease. We all know that there's a nexus between animal health and human health, and the food supply is one of the key areas of that nexus. Farmers and veterinarians need a variety of tools to keep animals healthy because healthy animals help produce safer food.

The FDA has made significant progress on a divisive issue. As a result, consumers benefit from knowing that antibiotics can only be used to address disease challenges in food animals under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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