The FDA's Confusing Message On Antibiotic Use On Farms

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If you've been following the latest moves by the FDA about antibiotic use on farms, there's a good chance you're completely befuddled.

The agency recently withdrew a promise to regulate certain antibiotics on farms, but weeks later they issued a new order to limit the use of others.

Let's back up.

The agency has long said it wanted to tamp down on the use of antibiotics on farms. Healthy livestock are given antibiotics to prevent infections and increase growth and research shows that this practice creates drug-resistant bugs that infect humans. Farmers say they need the antibiotics to carry out the large-scale farming that feeds much of the population.

Ending A Promise To Limit Antibiotics

Even though the FDA said that antibiotic use on farms is a problem that needs to be addressed, in December, the agency withdrew a pledge made in the 70s to regulate penicillins and tetracyclines, two of the most widely-used antibiotics on farms and for human health. Tom Philpott of Mother Jones called it "the FDA's Christmas present for Factory Farms."

And Natural Resources Defense president Frances Beinecke was not happy, writing in the Atlantic:

"Instead of making good on its 1977 promise to limit these drugs in livestock, the agency is moving in the opposite direction. The latest developments reveal that the FDA is actively trying to avoid protecting Americans from a known health hazard that the agency itself acknowledges."

A Move To Limit Some Antibiotics On Farms

After the December move against limits on some antibiotics, the FDA did just about the opposite this month, but for a different class of antibiotics. The FDA issued an order to limit the use of some antibiotics, known as cephalosporins, in livestock.

The agency's move got some positive, but tempered press. The New York Times editorial was headlined "The FDA Creeps Forward," while Congresswoman Louise Slaughter told NPR the move was too little too late.

Maryn McKenna, author of "Superbug: the Fatal Menace of MRSA" told Here & Now's Robin Young, "The fact that they're willing to control any antibiotic, that does seem to be positive." But she said that cephalosporins make up less than 1 percent of the antibiotics used on farms, so the move, while positive, was small.

Meanwhile, McKenna said advocates are still frustrated with the FDA's December decision not to regulate the widely used tetracyclines and penicillins.

"People who want to see antibiotics controlled are very frustrated that the FDA could not get this 34-year-old attempt to get the vast majority of antibiotics controlled. That they finally were essentially pushed back by Congress and industry and conceded that they were going to try voluntary reform instead," she said.

McKenna says that she doesn't think that the FDA will do much on the issue of antibiotics on farms in the next year because of the election cycle.

A Public Health Burden

McKenna says just one of the drug-resistant super bugs, MRSA, or drug resistant staff, causes almost 19,000 deaths a year in the U.S. and is responsible for 7 million doctor and ER visits.

"Every time someone in the hospital contracts MRSA... they stay up to twice as long, their care costs up to four time as much. Antibiotic resistance is a huge public health burden on our society," she said.


This segment aired on January 17, 2012.


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