Some Good, Some Bad in Obama Executive Order on Protecting Antibiotics

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Report fails to adequately address growing public health threat


Today, President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order – Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria. While the order takes several important steps necessary to control the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it misses the opportunity to call for critical reforms in the agricultural sector that are essential to protect public health.

“President Obama gets an A for tackling this problem from multiple angles,” said Sujatha Jahagirdar, U.S. PIRG Stop Antibiotics Overuse Program Director. “But in terms of addressing the biggest problem, the troubling overuse and misuse of antibiotics on large factory farms, the administration gets an incomplete.”

Earlier this summer, 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. In its 2013 drug resistance report, the CDC held that “much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.”

“Factory farms are playing a game of chicken with superbugs, and our ability to treat infections big and small may end up losing,” said Jahagirdar. “More than 70 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to livestock and poultry, which regularly get their helping of the drugs whether they’re sick or not.”

Industrial agriculture is the biggest consumer of antibiotics in the United States. 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, and these superbugs make their way off the farm and into the surrounding environment, threatening public health across the country.

Experts around the globe, 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.

However, the Executive Order issued today does not recommend such action. Instead, it orders the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture continue to take steps to eliminate the use of medically-important classes of antibiotics for growth promotion purposes in food-producing animals. The order does not ask the agencies to tackle the use of antibiotics for disease prevention in food-producing animals.

As detailed in a recent report released by U.S. PIRG, 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 diseases, rather than to treat existing infections. And 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 real reductions in antibiotics use in livestock production. For more than 30 years, European regulators took action 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 was required, and have seen huge reductions in antibiotic use in animals.

“We urge the administration to go further, to limit the use of antibiotics to when animals are truly sick or directly exposed to illness,” said Jahagirdar. “The medical community, consumers, and even many in the food industry would likely stand and applaud such a move.”

The Executive Order directs federal agencies to take several actions that will combat the accelerating spread of superbugs that are increasingly resistant to antibiotics and are more difficult, expensive and sometimes impossible to treat. These include:

    • Asking agencies to strengthen surveillance of antibiotic use and resistance patterns in food-producing animals and, inter-species disease transmissibility.
    • Asking the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to propose new actions, as appropriate, that require hospitals and other healthcare facilities to implement robust antibiotic stewardship programs.

These steps will greatly aid in assessing the extent of the problem and, while not tackling the largest overuse of antibiotics, will still result in some reductions.

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U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), stands up to powerful special interests on behalf of the American public, working to win concrete results for our health and our well-being. With a strong network of researchers, advocates, organizers and students in state capitals across the country, we take on the special interests on issues such as product safety, public health, political corruption, tax and budget reform and consumer protection, where these interests stand in the way of reform and progress.