Some Good, Some Bad in Obama Administration Plan to Protect Antibiotics

Tomorrow the National Task Force for Combatting Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria will release a five-year action plan to tackle the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.  The plan will take several positive steps but largely miss an opportunity to call for critical reforms on antibiotic use on livestock.

Andrew Fish

Plan fails to adequately address growing public health threat


BOSTON, March 26 – Tomorrow the National Task Force for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria will release a five-year action plan to tackle the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. While the plan will take several important steps necessary to control the spread of resistant bacteria, it will miss the opportunity to call for critical reforms in the agricultural sector that are essential to protect public health.

The plan will direct federal agencies to: 

–       Strengthen surveillance of antibiotic sales and resistance patterns in food-producing animals

–       Require hospitals and other healthcare facilities to implement robust antibiotic stewardship programs

“President Obama gets an A for tackling this problem from multiple angles,” said Andrew Fish, MASSPIRG Stop Antibiotics Overuse Campaign Organizer. “However, the administration gets an incomplete for largely ignoring the biggest problem, the troubling overuse and misuse of antibiotics on large factory farms.”

This lack of action in addressing the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture is particularly noteworthy in the wake of recent commitments by several major retailers to curtail the purchase of meat raised with the routine use of human antibiotics.  Earlier this month, for instance, McDonalds announced it would phase out chicken raised with medically important antibiotics in its U.S. restaurants by 2017.  This policy will likely do more to confront the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture than the policies recommended in tomorrow’s plan. 

In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that antibiotic resistance could be the “next pandemic,” and the agency has reported that 2 million Americans are sickened and 23,000 are killed by antibiotic-resistant infections every year. 

“Factory farms are playing a game of chicken with superbugs, and our ability to treat infections large and small may end up losing,” said Fish. “Fast food restaurants are taking the lead on confronting this issue while federal laws lag behind.” 

Up to 70 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are fed to livestock, which regularly get their serving of the drugs whether they’re sick or not. Animals are routinely fed these drugs so that they can grow faster with less feed and remain healthy in the unsanitary, disease-laden conditions common on factory farms. This widespread overuse, however, leads to the creation of drug-resistant bacteria, superbugs which can migrate from the farm to the surrounding environment, threatening public health across the country.

Health experts from the World Health Organization to the CDC agree that steps to immediately and significantly reduce antibiotic use on factory farms are essential to curb the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

Recognizing this growing public health threat, several retailers, including McDonalds Corporation, Chick Fil-A, Chipotle, Panera and others have made strong commitments to stop or significantly reduce their purchase of meat raised with life-saving antibiotics. 

However, the national plan to be issued tomorrow does not recommend similarly rigorous controls. It does not ask agencies to reduce antibiotics administered for disease prevention – responsible for the bulk of use on farms – and it does not mandate compliance with national guidance.

As detailed in a recent report released by MASSPIRG, entitled Weak Medicine, such an approach is unlikely to lead to a significant reduction in antibiotic overuse on animal farms. 

Farmers already purchase a majority of antibiotics under FDA rules that allow them to feed drugs to their healthy livestock to prevent disease, rather than to treat existing infections. In addition, all classes of antibiotics that can be used to promote growth can also be used to prevent diseases. Therefore, these voluntary guidelines may do nothing more than simply require factory farms to claim that these drugs are being used for disease prevention, rather than actually address their overuse.

The report also found that experience with similar rules in Europe shows stronger action is necessary to realize large reductions in antibiotic use in livestock production. For more than 30 years, European regulators took actions similar to the FDA’s recommendations, yet antibiotic use in animals did not decline because farms increased the antibiotics fed to animals for “disease prevention.” In 2011, the European Parliament adopted a resolution stating that the ban was insufficient to protect human health from the overuse of antibiotics. Meanwhile, both Denmark and the Netherlands took stronger actions than were required, and have seen significant reductions in antibiotic use in animals.

“We urge the administration to at least keep up with the retail sector and limit the use of medically important antibiotics to when animals are actually sick or directly exposed to illness,” said Fish. “The medical community, consumers, and many in the food industry would stand and applaud such a move.”


Andrew Fish

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