The cynicism of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) knows no bounds.
Just before the holidays, the agency, which is supposed to protect Americans’ health, reneged on a 35-year-old pledge to ban farmers from administering low levels (also called subtherapeutic levels) of antibiotics that are used to combat infections in humans to livestock, not to cure disease, but to increase the healthy animals’ growth rates.
The FDA went back on its word during a time when media outlets were short staffed and Americans too focused on last-minute holiday preparations to much about agricultural news. And it made its intentions known quietly in the Federal Register—hardly a volume on the average consumer’s must-read list—without even issuing a press release.
What a difference a couple of weeks make. With the new year only a few days old, the FDA issued a press release that was dutifully disseminated by news outlets including the New York Times (one would expect better reporting from that source) with headlines like “FDA Restricts Use of Antibiotics in Livestock.”
In the release, the FDA proudly proclaimed that it had ordered livestock producers to stop administering low doses of a single class of antibiotics known as cephalosporins, which are used to treat strep throat, bronchitis, and urinary tract infections in humans. Furthermore, the FDA’s most recent move is nothing more than the belated (and watered down) enactment of a decision to ban cephalosporins that it made in 2008 that was retracted under pressure from agribusiness interests.
On the surface, even that might sound like reason to cheer. But dig a little deeper and it begins to look like this week’s release is nothing more than a smokescreen to cover up that pre-Christmas decision to roll back its order to halt to the routine administration to healthy livestock of all antibiotics that are beneficial to humans, a prohibition that would have included cephalosporins. It’s like a mugger stealing your wallet containg hundreds of dollars, handing you back subway fare home, and then telling you how generous he was.
“This is a modest first step by the FDA,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) in a press release.
Calling it modest is being very diplomatic. Beginning in 1976, scientific study after scientific study has shown that the widespread subtherapeutic use of antibiotics leads to the development of mutant superbugs that are resistant to drugs which have saved millions of human lives.
The FDA’s decision to lift the proposed prohibition on subtherapeutic use of most antibiotics—the decision they don’t want us to know about—came at a time when the case against indiscriminate antibiotic use was building. In mid- December, Tyson Fresh Meats recalled hamburger meat tainted with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella. A few months earlier, Cargill recalled millions of pounds of ground turkey that was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella, but not before the superbug sickened 136 consumers in 34 states, hospitalizing 94 and killing one.
The FDA has long been aware of the resistance problem. When it proposed to withdraw its approval of the use of penicillin and tetracycline in farm animals in 1977, the law required that it act immediately. But under pressure from big ag and big pharma (80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are fed to healthy animals), the agency dragged its feet and did nothing, even though public health and environmental organizations, including the American Medical Association urged it to act. With scientific appeals falling on deaf ears, the Natural Resource Defense Council, joined by other plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit last spring to make the FDA follow its own rules.
In a calculated attempt to undermine the legal basis for the NRDC suit, the FDA’s pre-holiday reversal simply nullified the original 1977 order, in effect wiping out 35 years of history and scientific research.
“We need to get our head out of the sand and start taking public health advice from scientists rather than industry lobbyists,” Slaughter, who is a microbiologist by training, said in a press release in response to the FDA’s decision to nullify the order. “Every year 100,000 Americans die from bacterial infections acquired in the hospital, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Seventy percent of these infections are resistant to the drugs commonly used to treat them. I wonder how many lives could have been saved if these proposals were adopted in 1977, as they should have been.”
The FDA insists that it still favors “judicious use” of antimicrobials in livestock, but that it is focusing its efforts on “the potential for voluntary reform.” The FDA’s cooperative route is leading in one direction. In 1999, farmers gave healthy animals 17.8 million pounds of antibiotics per year; by 2009 the total was 29.8 million pounds, according to the FDA’s own figures. Slaughter, who introduced The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act in 2009, reported that antibiotic use rose an additional 6.7 percent between 2009 and 2010, after the FDA initiated its new voluntary policy.
There is even evidence that subtherapeutic antibiotic use does not necessarily increase growth rates in livestock. In Europe, the practice has been banned since 1998, and levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria have plummeted, while meat production rates have stayed the same or increased.
When corporate and government PR flacks have information they don’t want the public to see, it’s common for them to release it late in the news cycle. In the evening after deadlines have passed for most television networks and newspapers is a good time. Late Friday afternoons just before skeleton crews man newsrooms for the weekend is better. The Chinese government, for instance, makes it a practice to jail dissidents over Christmas, when no one is paying attention.
So we have two pieces of recent news from the FDA, one came just before Christmas, the other during the first days of the New Year when many news organizations are struggling to catch up after vacation. The timing of both announcements tells you all you need to know.