We Don’t Know Enough About Antibiotic Use in Animals

The use-and overuse-of antibiotics is a hot topic in health care, largely because of the ability of bad bugs to mutate and develop resistance to treatment. Our most recent discussion of the problem concerned the diminishing number of drugs to treat gonorrhea.

As much as antibiotics are prescribed and abused for human use, according to a recent story in the New York Times, 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are administered to livestock-chicken, pigs, cows and other animals that people eat. But, remarkably, producers of meat and poultry are not required to report how they use the drugs. They’re not required to specify the drugs they use, what animals get them and in what quantities.

“This dearth of information,” says The Times, “makes it difficult to document the precise relationship between routine antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic-resistant infections in people, scientists say.”

So despite situations like the one earlier this year, when a salmonella strain resistant to many antibiotics multiplied tenfold on chicken breasts-the most commonly eaten flesh on U.S. dinner plates-scientists remained puzzled by a paucity of data they could use to decipher the bug.

That’s a challenge not only to resolve a potential health issue, but it deprives scientists of hard data supporting the notion that the routine use of antibiotics in livestock is a major player in antibiotic resistance.

“It’s like facing off against a major public health crisis with one hand tied behind our backs,” Keeve Nachman, an environmental health scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, told The Times.

For people, antibiotics are the front line against bacterial infection. For animals, they encourage growth and, therefore, profit for the interests that sell them as food.

The FDA has attempted to regulate the use of antibiotics in animals sold for food. Most recently, it restricted the use of cephalosporins in animals, which we noted earlier this year. This class of antibiotics is the most common treatment for pneumonia, strep throat and urinary infections in people.

Consumer health advocates decry the FDA’s reluctance to use its authority more aggressively against overuse and abuse of antibiotics. Even as early as 1977, according to The Times, the agency announced that it would begin banning some agricultural uses of antibiotics. But Congress caved to the commercial agricultural interests and passed resolutions against prohibition. The FDA retreated.

John Glisson, director of research programs at the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, an industry group, told The Times that poultry feed mills “keep detailed records of antibiotic usage in the feed they manufacture [and that the FDA] has the authority to inspect and audit these records.” He said the agency has open access to these records.

Regulators say it’s not that easy. They might have authority to review food manufacturer records, but they may not publish the data.

In July, The Times reports, the National Pork Producers Council said that its members should not be required to report on antibiotics because it would add complexity.

Well, yeah. Science, medicine, the maintenance of health are complicated. That’s not a reason to decline to practice them.

The data collection so critical to scientific scrutiny is doable for human use thanks to the infrastructure of the U.S. health-care system. But, as The Times notes, “there is no equivalent for animals, making it harder to track use on farms and ranches,” according to William Flynn, deputy director for science policy at the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine.

Some data are regularly released – a measure of antibiotic-resistant bacteria carried by meat and poultry. But the samples are so small that scientists don’t find them compelling evidence.

For example, the chicken breasts that bore a shocking increase in salmonella resistant to at least five classes of antibiotics? Only 171 breasts composed the sample-a tiny fraction of the 8 billion-plus birds raised and sold as food every year in the U.S.

The FDA is trying to curb the practice of many drugs sold over the counter through feed suppliers. The agency has proposed eliminating the use of some antibiotics to stimulate growth in animals, and requiring a prescription before meat and poultry producers could give certain antibiotics to their animals.

But regulatory responsibility is too uncoordinated, some observers say, to effect any significant change. The FDA regulates drugs, but the Department of Agriculture is responsible for livestock. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also weighs in.

“There’s nobody in charge,” Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, told The Times. “And when no one’s in charge, it doesn’t get done.”

Flynn, from the FDA, told The Times his agency was moving as fast as it could to make sure antibiotics are used judiciously in farm animals.

We’re not convinced.

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