Public health advocates worry the changes don’t go far enough, and that human health hangs in the balance as antibiotic-resistant diseases kill thousands in the U.S. each year.
The FDA on Dec. 11 moved to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth enhancers in animals produced for meat. The ruling comes over concerns that the use of those drugs to make animals fatter, and thereby more profitable for farmers, can cause diseases in humans that are resistant to treatment by antibiotics.
“We’re just going to have to wait and see,” said Guy Hall, director of the Alabama Poultry Producers, which advocates for the poultry industry in the state.
Hall said farmers aren’t certain how reduced use of antibiotics for growth promotion will affect their operations, but that “what you’re going to see in animal agriculture is somewhat of a reduction in productivity due to backing off some of these things.”
The animals will still probably be as large as they were when on the antibiotics, Hall said, but farmers will likely “feed them more to produce less. And you could have a higher mortality of chickens.”
He believes farmers will comply with the new policy, however, and said he’s already heard from some who say they will, but he added that antibiotics have their place in raising chickens.
“When you move livestock, or in the early stages right after hatching baby chicks out, the first few weeks are critical,” Hall said. “If you prevent them from getting sick then you don’t have as many problems.”
Hall said he believes most farmers will slowly use less of those antibiotics over the next three years to soften the blows to their operations.
Alabama was the fourth-largest producer of broiler chickens in 2012, generating $2.8 billion that year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state’s cattle production in 2012 was $536 million, ranking 27th among states in sales.
Hall said he’s less certain if reducing the drugs in animal production will have an effect on human health.
“You could totally abolish antibiotics in agriculture and still not solve the problem,” he said.
Erin Beasley, director of communications at the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association, said the state’s cattle farmers weren’t surprised by the FDA’s announcement.
“We’ve been watching this for the last few years as it’s developed,” Beasley said. “Our cattlemen in the state are committed to raising a healthy herd. A healthy herd leads to healthy products. It goes hand-in-hand, and by doing that they work very closely with veterinarians to develop a herd health plan.”
Those plans help cattleman prevent and control diseases within their herds, Beasley said, and the FDA’s recommendations won’t change that.
Beasley said the state’s cattle producers shouldn’t see a reduction in revenue due to the FDA’s new policy.
That policy asks drug makers to change the way they label antibiotics for use on animals, making it illegal to use them as growth-promoters. The policy recommends the drugs be used only for an animal’s health, and only with a veterinarian’s prescription.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year 23,000 Americans die from infections that are resistant to antibiotics. The FDA in 2011 found that animal agriculture consumed 80 percent of all antibiotics used in 2009.
“Every time antibiotics are used in any setting, bacteria evolve by developing resistance. This process can happen with alarming speed,” said Dr. Steve Solomon, director of the CDC’s Office of Antimicrobial Resistance in a press release. “These drugs are a precious, limited resource — the more we use antibiotics today, the less likely we are to have effective antibiotics tomorrow.”
Will it work?
The FDA’s new policy is voluntary, meaning it’s up to the animal producers and pharmaceutical companies to agree to comply. They’ll have three years to do so, but there is no enforcement mechanism in the order, and only a vague threat of future regulations if drug makers and farmers choose to ignore the recommendations.
That troubles Steve Roach, senior analyst for Keep Antibiotics Working, an organization that advocates for reduced use of antibiotics in livestock.
Roach pointed to a recent statement by a spokeswoman for Zoetis — one of the largest animal pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. — that the new policy was not expected to have a negative impact on the company’s revenues because many of its drugs are also approved for therapeutic uses.
“If the goal is to reduce antibiotic overuse, and it doesn’t affect their sales, then it’s obviously not going to work,” Roach said.
Roach said he believes companies may simply not agree to comply, and a large number of drugs are labeled for use as both growth promoters and for animal health. Removing growth promotion from the drug labels won’t lessen the use, he said.
The drug lyncomycin is added to chicken feed for both growth promotion and to treat disease, Roach said.
“If you pull off the growth promotion from the label it won’t change at all how you’re using it. The bigger change is that you’ll have to go through a vet to get that, but I don’t see that as a big problem,” Roach said. “They haven’t really admitted that there’s a public health benefit for doing that.”
Roach said he believes veterinarians will simply increase antibiotic prescriptions for uses other than growth enhancement.
In a statement on the American Veterinary Medical Association’s website, the use of the drugs is deemed important to animal welfare.
“There is little to no evidence that restricting or eliminating the use of antimicrobials in food-producing animals would improve human health or reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to humans,” reads the statement. “Healthy animals provide healthy food. Banning or severely restricting antimicrobial use limits veterinarians' ability to prevent or control animal diseases.”
In a press release after the FDA’s announcement, American Veterinary Medical Association president Dr. Clark Fobian said the organization is pleased with the new FDA policy.
“The AVMA has long advocated that greater veterinary oversight of the use of antimicrobials on the farm is a benefit to human and animal health,” Fobian wrote.
David Kirkpatrick, spokesman for the American Veterinarian Medical Association, said the organization believes veterinarians will follow the FDA recommendations.
“We certainly support the use of antibiotics in food animals, particularly for therapeutic uses,” Kirkpatrick said. “Veterinarians not only are interested and concerned and work daily to protect animal health, but they’re just as committed to protecting human health.”
A statement on the website of the Animal Health Institute, a lobbying group for the animal drug industry, says it’s unclear whether the new policy will reduce the use of antibiotics in farm animals.
“We don’t know. Use is driven by many factors, including the number of animals as well as factors like weather and disease outbreaks,” reads the statement.
“That’s what we’re concerned about,” Roach said. “It’s basically trying to limit public concerns without resulting in any real changes, and I think that would be an unfortunate result.”
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.