FDA and USDA need to get on board with the CDC about reducing antibiotic use in raising animals for food


By Steven Roach, STAT

Sept. 19, 2022


Roach is the director of the Safe and Healthy Food Program at the Food Animal Concerns Trust and a senior analyst for Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition of advocacy organizations working to combat the inappropriate use of antibiotics in food animals.


The overuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobials in raising farm animals for food may not be equivalent to Covid-19 and climate change as threats to human health, but it is right up there. This practice contributes to antibiotic-resistant infections, which are now a leading cause of death worldwide.


The annual death toll from antimicrobial resistance could reach 10 million by 2050 — more people than currently die from cancer. Over- and misuse of antibiotics has allowed infections to mutate and resist the drugs necessary to treat countless life-threatening conditions. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the U.S. has lost progress combating antimicrobial resistance since 2020 due, in large part, to the Covid-19 pandemic. The report emphasizes, “This setback can and must be temporary.”


The U.S. and other governments are taking steps to reduce antibiotic use in animal farming. Paradoxically, the Food and Drug Administration seems to be working against public health by refusing to set antibiotic reduction goals in agriculture. How can the U.S. successfully fight antibiotic resistance when its federal agencies aren’t aligned on the problem of antibiotic misuse, let alone the solution?


Almost two-thirds of the medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. go to industrial agriculture, mainly to raise pigs and cattle. Factory farms raise these animals in unhygienic, overcrowded, poorly ventilated conditions and give them antibiotics to mitigate the consequences. This inevitably leads to the development of dangerous antibiotic-resistant superbugs that spread to humans through tainted food and the environment. To put this number in context, humanely raised animals rarely need any antibiotics at all, if ever.


Continuing the high use of antibiotics for raising farm animals sets the U.S. up for a health catastrophe. The federal government needs to establish national targets now for reducing the overuse of antibiotics in food animal production, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture and FDA have yet to clearly acknowledge this need. Instead, the FDA made a “plan” full of subpar goals that have continually been put off, watered down, and left unmet, and has rejected calls to set reduction targets in numerous meetings with members of the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition, with which I am affiliated. A USDA official has even stated in an email she mistakenly shared with me that reducing antibiotic use in agriculture is “against the U.S. government policy,” part of which is promoting agriculture — and protecting the profits of industrial agriculture corporations.


The CDC is clear about the need to reduce antibiotic use. The USDA and FDA should be following its lead by limiting antibiotic use in animal agriculture.


Earlier this week, the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, the leading body providing advice to federal agencies in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, met in person for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic...


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