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Letter From The Editor: Streetlights

After going back and forth about what to write for Christmas Day, I’ve decided to treat this as any other day. Just pretend we are at the corner gas station or firehouse, doing what we do everyday, which is talk about food safety. 

There is nothing scarier than contemplating hospitalization for an illness resistant to the very antibiotics that normally would help us recover. So, as the late Hubert H. Humphrey use to say, “I am no Johnny-come-lately” in my opposition to drug resistance. 

Yet, something has now happened that causes my non-scientific mind to wonder if we are not like the man looking for his lost money underneath the streetlight. What happened is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is withdrawing proposals to remove approvals for two antibiotics used in livestock feed. 

When did FDA first make those proposals? 1977. 

Ever since, most of science and enough activists groups to fill a farm silo have been hot on the case that over-use of antibiotics and hormones in animal agriculture, especially the use of antibiotics to promote growth, could be contributing to human drug resistance. 

Yet after 34 years, in 2011, the Government Accountability Office of Congress came to the conclusion that there is not sufficient data to even study a link between antibiotic uses in food animals to antibiotic uses in humans. 

The man looking for his lost money under the streetlight was asked why he kept searching in that one place. He replied that the light was better there than in any other place. 

With first the GAO and now FDA backing off, is it not reasonable to ask: Have we been looking in the wrong place? 

FDA’s new notice on this issue means that adding penicillin and tetracycline to feed for food-producing animals is no longer in question, at least in a formal sense. Instead, the government is going to “focus its efforts for now on the potential for voluntary reform and the promotion of the judicious use of antimicrobials in the interest of public health.
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USDA Secretary Vilsack is out with a very similar statement.

Ordinarily, I’d be as cynical as the next guy about such a reversal. But after 34 years? Dead ends do exist in the universe.

 And actually, according to “Superbug” Author Maryn McKenna, the animal agriculture link was first raised 42 years ago in something called the 1969 “Swann Report” in the United Kingdom. (Ms. McKenna sees this differently than I do.) 

I do know that the GAO and FDA do not do things lightly. Resistant bacterial infections are a growing problem, as the beef and poultry industries are finding out from outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella. 

But if we keep looking in the same place just because the light there is good, we can only blame ourselves, not animal agriculture.

© Food Safety News
  • cjolley

    The biggest problem with ‘voluntary’ reforms is the only volunteers are those people who do the right thing, anyway. And maybe a few that won’t but would like to take credit for the effort.

  • Chuck Jolley

    The biggest problem with ‘voluntary’ reforms is the only volunteers are those people who do the right thing, anyway. And maybe a few that won’t but would like to take credit for the effort.