The US Food and Drug Administration is continuing to take a “very serious” look at the link between the use of antibiotics in agriculture and the growing prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

Hamburg discussed the antibiotics issue last week during a question-and-answer session following her remarks at the National Press Club on the agency’s initiative to boost regulatory science.  Hamburg was asked why, considering the growing public health threat posed by drug resistance, antibiotics were still being routinely administered to food animals to promote growth or prevent disease. 

“It’s a very important question.  There has been a very considerable use of antibiotics as part of animal husbandry as well as aquaculture,” said Hamburg.  “For many years individuals at organizations in public health and medicine have raised various concerns about [the impact] …on human health and the availability of effective antibiotics to treat disease.”

“We are in the midst of very serious scrutiny of these issues, and we have made recommendations in support of judicious use of antibiotics,” she said.  “Nobody wants to deny antibiotics to animals that need medical treatment, but the use in certain preventive contexts, where its not clearly medically indicated, is of growing concern.”

Hamburg’s recent comments on the issue and the FDA’s June release of a draft guidance, on the judicious use of “medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals,” are widely considered signals that the agency is poised to crackdown on routine use.

The document expressed the agency’s thinking on the issue–that scientific evidence suggests the routine use of medically important drugs in food product is “not in the interest of protecting and public health.”  Most industry groups say the scientific link between farms and the human health impacts of antibiotic resistance is weak.

When the guidance was released the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association questioned the basis for the report.

“Antimicrobial resistance is a multi-faceted and extremely complex issue that cannot be adequately addressed by solely focusing on the use of these medications in animal agriculture,” said association chief veterinarian Elizabeth Parker in a statement.  “[The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association] supports actions based only on sound, peer-reviewed science and risk assessment relative to the use of antibiotics.”

Industry push back aside, FDA officials continue to publicly indicate they are committed to tackling the routine use of antibiotics in animal agriculture.  Some experts worry the agency isn’t moving fast enough.

Robert Martin, a senior officer at the Pew Charitable Trust’s environment group, called the FDA’s actions “very minor” and “very tentative.”

“They talk a big game, but their actions don’t really match their words,”  Martin told Food Safety News.  Martin believes the draft guidance was a step in the right direction, but called the document “vague.”

“We ought to look at all uses of antibiotics,” said Martin. “The American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, they’ve all been working hard to limit the use in humans, but what we haven’t done is to try to reduce the use in agriculture.”

Despite his frustration with the FDA’s pace, Martin believes that ultimately the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics that are important for human health will be limited in the US.  “The trend is clearly moving in that direction,” he said. “They could definitely be moving more aggressively.”