The FDA issued a press announcement today that shows they are taking the threats and warnings about increases in “superbugs” somewhat seriously. By limiting the use of antibiotics for treatments of illnesses and infections, versus adding them to feed to help fatten up livestock, the new guidelines are part of the FDA’s plan to prevent antimicrobial resistant strains of bugs from developing further. But do these new guidance rules, mainly voluntary at this point, really go far enough?
What are “superbugs” and what does it have to do with the antibiotics in my meat?
Historically, antibiotics were prescribed for both humans and animals to treat infections. But in recent years, antibiotics have routinely been added to animal feed to fatten them up faster, or even limit how much food the animals need. Basically, it improves profit margins. Only downside though is that with this increased use of antibiotics, strains of bacteria and other microbes are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotic treatment.
How can “superbugs” harm me?
The CDC issued an exhaustive study on the overuse of antibiotics, both in livestock and even in humans, and the findings were startling. Upwards of 28,000 people die each year in America from overuse of antibiotics in the meat products we consume. A simple infection could suddenly turn very bad if the bacteria you happen to get is now resistant to antibiotic treatment. To get a simple picture diagram of how the overuse of antibiotics can harm us, see page 14.
Specifics of the FDA’s new industry guidance
The FDA is setting in motion a plan to eventually phase out the use of non-treatment antibiotics in feed and water, and limit the use of antibiotics by prescription only, issued by a vet, for the treatment of a specific illness or infection. Much like the general rules for issuing antibiotics to humans. Consider this, what if your child’s pediatrician routinely handed out doses of antibiotics to your child to prevent any infections from ever popping up, and leaving you in charge of adding those antibiotics to their food and water as you saw fit, versus only prescribing them when absolutely necessary. It would feel strange and perhaps even negligent, would it not? This is what has been routinely occurring in the meat industry for years. While not all farms use these methods, and strictly limit the use of antibiotics unless an animal needs it, there are enough farms who are practicing this way to cause concern.
But Is It Enough?
Reading through the guidelines and the press release tells me that it’s a start, but based on the voluntary aspect of the new guidelines, I am skeptical of how far reached they will in fact be. The FDA is enlisting the help of the pharmaceutical companies, asking animal pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily revise their labels to display only the FDA-approved, treatment-based uses. They want the companies to then remove any growth-promotion claims for antibiotics that are also used to treat human illness. The FDA is asking animal pharmaceutical companies to notify them of their intent to sign on to the strategy within the next 90 days, and from there, the companies would have a three-year transition process. The plan also requires changing the over-the-counter status of these drugs so that they now require a prescription from a veterinarian. Vets will then have authority to dispense antibiotics for specific animals in order to prevent or treat particular infections. Interestingly enough, the agency is also updating the VDF (veterinary feed directive), and the proposed VFD rule is open for public comment for 90 days starting on Dec. 12, 2013. It will be interesting to see what the new standards call for, taking into consideration the “public comment.”
I suspect that we won’t really know the implications of this new directive for at least 90 days, after we see how many pharmaceutical companies voluntarily step forward. FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Michael Taylor said, “Based on our outreach, we have every reason to believe that animal pharmaceutical companies will support us in this effort.” Call me a skeptic, but I’m not too sure these companies will be rushing to step forward, knowing that a big portion of their yearly profits will soon be going out the window.
Currently over 80% of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used for farm animals. While I want to hold out hope that the latest steps by the FDA will finally bring forth change, I can’t help but recall a very similar statement issued by the FDA exactly 20 months ago. Doesn’t seem that much has changed since then, does it?