(You leave the country for a few days -- I spoke at a conference in Brussels, which was was lovely, thanks for asking -- and all kinds of news breaks out. So, sorry to be late on this, but it's an important issue.)
Last week, the Food and Drug Adminstration took the first (baby, mincing, tentative) steps to address the problem of antibiotics being used in animal agriculture, not to treat disease, but to make animals grow up to market weight faster. This practice -- variously called subtherapeutic dosing, growth promotion, and "for production purposes" in the FDA's exceedingly careful language -- has been fully banned in the European Union for 4 years, and some aspects of the practice have been banned longer.
The simple reason for the ban: There's decades of good science and real-world experience showing that it contributes to the development of drug-resistant organisms in farm animals and the farm environment, organisms that leave farms in the animals and in their manure, and also contaminate the environment beyond farm borders via leakage into groundwater and dust blowing off manure lagoons.That movement off the farm is critical because many of the drugs used in agriculture are the same, or close analogs, of drugs used in human medicine; so resistance that develops on the farm endangers human health as well. (MRSA ST398, livestock-associated MRSA, is the latest example of this. Find a long archive of posts on ST398 here.)
Just to be clear, growth-promoters don't treat disease; they're given to healthy animals solely for the purpose of getting them up to sale weight and to market faster. The ways in which antibiotics are given to livestock to treat or prevent disease have their own issues, but those are not part of the FDA effort. (Historical note: The growth-promoting effect of trace amounts of antibiotics was first recognized in 1947, when scientists at Lederle were looking for something to do with the leftover fermentation mash from the manufacture of chlortetracycline, fed it to chickens, and discovered they thrived on it. Stuart Levy's The Antibiotic Paradox tells this story in detail.)
In human medicine, when we give antibiotics to people who are not sick with a bacterial illness, we call it inappropriate use -- and aim massive education campaigns at the practice in an attempt to dial it down. In contract, the animal side has had a free pass for a long time, to the extent that it remains unclear how many antibiotics are used in farming in the US (best estimate: about 70% of all antibiotic use in the US per year), and there is no organized surveillance that would look at what organisms are emerging in animals from that use.
The FDA has been trying to put curbs on growth promoters since the 1970s, always without success; the lobbying against it, by agriculture and also by pharmaceutical interests, is reliably intense. There's been a parallel effort in Congress to limit the use in animals of drugs that have close analogs in human medicine, via the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, or PAMTA, authored by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Congress's only microbiologist. PAMTA has been introduced in several Congresses but this year finally gained some traction. Last year, the Obama administration signaled, in testimony by then-new assistant FDA commissioner Joshua Sharfstein, that it might be friendly to the idea of dialing back on growth-promoter antibiotic use, and it looked as though the long logjam might finally be broken.
Well, OK: Not broken, exactly. Just shifted a little, and maybe showing a tiny bit of light.
On Tuesday, the FDA released a "draft guidance" that proposes animal ag do two things: stop using growth-promoting subtherapeutic dosing, and administer antibiotics to animals under the supervision of a veterinarian. That's the good news.
The bad news: It's only a guidance, not a regulation. In other words, it has no force in law. It's more like a request -- though in a press conference last week, Sharfstein suggested it might also be a shot across agriculture's collective bow:
We have the regulatory mechanisms and the industry knows that. But we are also interested in what things can be done just voluntarily that they would do them. And I think it'll be interesting to see how the industry responds to this and how - what direction their comments take. ...We're not handcuffed to the steering wheel of a particular strategy at this point. We really want to understand what people think. And but we're also - I'm not ruling out anything that we could do to accomplish these important public health goals. (Transcript)
Reactions to the FDA announcement were predictable -- effectively "No science, more research needed": Here's the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, and a standing statement by the Animal Health Institute. (Supporting the FDA move: the Pew Charitable Trusts, the New York Times.)
The draft guidance stays open for public comment for 60 days, until Aug. 30. The required Federal Register posting is here, with the mailing address. Electronic comments can be left at Regulations.gov; the docket number for the guidance is FDA-2010-D-0094; 33 comments have been posted already.