Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Monday urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to expand efforts to gather data on antibiotic use in agriculture and take steps to reduce usage.

“We believe that the USDA has the opportunity and resources to take additional steps to reduce inappropriate usage of antibiotics on farms,” reads the letter. “The lack of data regarding agricultural usage of antibiotics makes it impossible to assess whether or not current usage is either prudent or responsible.”

cattle-feeding-featured.jpgThe letter asks the agency to leverage existing monitoring systems to help address the “information deficit” for antibiotic usage. “In addition to improving monitoring opportunities, the USDA can help educate farmers about animal husbandry techniques that reduce antibiotic use,” said Feinstein and Slaughter, who both serve as the primary sponsors of legislation that would ban the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed.

In the letter, Feinstein and Slaughter urge the agency to:

Use the National Animal Health Monitoring & Surveillance System (NAHMS) as a tool to monitor trends in the volume and type of antibiotics used on farms.  According to the letter, “[A]ntibiotic data is collected voluntarily and qualitatively, and there is no systematic assessment that increases our understanding of antibiotic patterns and trends across livestock sectors.”

Enhance the Agricultural Resource Management Survey’s (ARMS) monitoring of antibiotic practices on farms. The letter says the current survey could be expanded to include information on the volume and efficiency of on-farm antibiotic usage and that data could help public health officials understand and identify potential sources of resistance.

Expand the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) to collect data on Staphylococcus aureus resistance.  “While NARMS has produced an abundance of information about the frequency and resistant levels of enteric bacteria, there has not been similar progress made in the tracking of other antibiotic resistant pathogens such as MRSA,” says the letter. “Expanding the scope of NARMS to include other pathogens would provide public health officials with a wider spectrum of information.”

Create annual reports that synthesize data on antibiotic usage in agriculture.  In addition to expanded and enhanced monitoring, the letter requests a full review of collected data. “We believe that such a review is critical to understand the link between antibiotic use in agriculture and antibiotic resistant infections in humans.”

The letter also requests that the agency establish formal guidance on antibiotic use for veterinarians and utilize extension agents to educate farmers on techniques to reduce drug usage.
“It’s asking the USDA to unite in the fight to save antibiotics,” said Laura Rogers, project manager for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming. Rogers believes there could be better interagency coordination to monitor overall usage, explaining that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) coordinate with USDA in NARMS, but there is still no agency focused on overall use on the farm.

“No one is required to monitor how, when, and for what purpose these drugs are used,” said Rogers. “You can walk into a feed store and buy a bag of feed with tetracylcine in it. Who’s keeping track of that? No one.”