March 17, 2010
The widespread use of antibiotics in livestock production, and the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, is a topic of increasing interest among policymakers. After delving into the topic less than a week before at the Atlantic Food Summit, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg returned to the antibiotics question again during the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on March 10, 2010.
Rep. Tom Latham (R, IA) pressed Hamburg about the FDA’s position on use of antibiotics in animals. Hogs outnumber humans six to one in Latham’s district, which is also home to one of the nation’s largest animal antibiotic manufacturers, Fort Dodge laboratories. Latham referred to a July 24, 2009 New York Times editorial and asked, “Is it the FDA’s intention to entirely ban antibiotics in livestock?”
Hamburg responded that the FDA had no intention of an outright ban on antibiotic use for treatment or prevention of disease in animals, but she questioned the use of antibiotics as a growth promoter in animal feed. Hamburg noted that antibiotic resistance was a “one of the foremost health concerns in the nation,” and that action was needed to preserve the effectiveness of major antibiotics for humans and animals. Latham interrupted to ask, “is there any science that says there’s a connection?” Hamburg assured him that there was, and promised to provide that information. The Keep Antibiotics Working website features a growing list of scientific studies on antibiotic resistance.
Latham went on to question Hamburg about whether the FDA intended to take action on its own with regard to animal antibiotics, or whether the agency would wait for a signal from Congress. Hamburg did not rule out the possibility of pursuing “regulatory pathways” to address the issue, but emphasized that any action by the FDA would be based on sound science and taken in consultation with industry and experts.
In 2009, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D, NY) introduced legislation known as the “Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment” (PAMTA) Act, HR 1549. Hamburg mentioned that legislation during the hearing last week, but said, “the Administration has no position on that bill. We have a somewhat different view of the issue than that piece of legislation.”
One of the solutions that has sometimes been proposed for curbing the use of antibiotics in livestock is to require that an animal be assessed by a veterinarian before antibiotics can be administered, similar to requiring humans to obtain a prescription for antibiotics from a doctor. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R, MO) noted that such a requirement could prove challenging in some areas of the country. “I’ve got a very rural district, with perhaps 1 vet and 100,000 animals,” Emerson said. She cautioned Hamburg that requiring an animal to be seen by a vet before being treated with antibiotics “puts us in a hard position.”
For more information on solutions to the problem of antibiotic resistance, go to the wise antibiotics page of the Food and Agriculture Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an NSAC member organization.