Again the FDA fails to stem unnecessary use of antibiotics in farm animals

This is your cow on drugs

At first glance, it looked so promising.

It really did appear that the FDA was finally taking steps to limit non-medical use of antibiotics in farm animals.

As I’ve mentioned before, antibiotics increase the weight of farm animals and accelerate growth. That boosts profits. But traces of antibiotics find their way into humans. That adds to our collective antibiotic resistance. And that makes us less able to fight off bacterial superbugs like MRSA.

So the FDA is finally putting a stop to the madness.

Well… That’s what I WISH I could tell you. Sadly, it’s just not so. Not even close.

That was then, this is…then

Thirty-five years ago, it was a different story.

In 1977, the FDA banned non-medical use of penicillin and tetracycline in farm animals. And that should have been the end of this insane nonsense.

But the agency never enforced the ban. An Associated Press report explains that the agency backed down in the face of resistance from Congress. Lobbyists for farmers and drugmakers also played a role.

And those “farmers” weren’t hard-working guys in overalls. They were agri-businessmen in suits.

So for 35 years, agri-business giants laughed at the ban. And non-medical antibiotic use exploded. FDA and USDA officials did nothing. They’re hapless lackeys when it comes to regulating giant corporations.

That’s why public safety groups have stepped up to do what the regulators wouldn’t do. They took action. They sued FDA officials to enforce the 1977 ban. And they won! Earlier this year, a federal judge ordered the agency to take action on the ban.

This was like waking a teenager up from a nap to make him mow the lawn: “Huh? What? I gotta do what? Aw, man!”

Agency officials have the option to appeal the federal court decision. But instead, they’ve come up with a different solution. An agency spokesperson says it can achieve the same goal, but in less time.

Okay, FDA. Let’s hear it. We’re all ears!

It’s a two-part plan. Part One: Ask the drug industry to change the labels on antibiotics sold to agriculture. The new labels would say something like, “For medical use only.”

Did you catch the keyword? “Ask.” That’s right. It’s a recommendation. Completely voluntary! But even if drug companies complied, what difference would it possibly make to factory farm owners? They already ignore the ban. And they probably never even lay eyes on antibiotic labels.

I’d say this is a very strong contender for the most inconsequential regulatory action ever.

Part Two of the plan is almost as toothless.

It would change antibiotic purchasing status from over-the-counter to prescription. That’s right. You and I need a prescription for a small bottle of antibiotics. But factory farm managers just call Pfizer or Merck and have them send over a few dozen barrels.

With the new plan, a veterinarian would prescribe the drugs. This is no reflection on veterinarians, but come on. It would be easy to find a vet who would rubber stamp as many prescriptions as any “farmer” desires.

Keep in mind, this two-part plan is only a recommendation. That’s like trying to solve the antibiotic problem by crossing your fingers and wishing really really hard.

“FDA wants limits on antibiotics given to animals” Matthew Perrone, Associated Press, 4/11/12,

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