Federal agencies have made “limited progress” in addressing antibiotic use in food animals and lack the data needed to track progress, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

The GAO found that the government is lacking the detailed data needed to measure efforts to reduce antibiotic resistance and fully examine the relationship between using antibiotics in animal agriculture and the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Without that analysis, it’s difficult to measure whether or not policies to combat resistance are working.

The National Pork Producers Council pointed to the GAO report as confirmation of the group’s long-held position that science does not back up the link between food animal antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance in humans.

“Not only is there no scientific study linking antibiotic use in food animals to antibiotic resistance in humans, as the U.S. pork industry has continually pointed out, but there isn’t even adequate data to conduct a study,” National Pork Producers Council President Doug Wolf in a statement. “The GAO report on antibiotic resistance issued today confirms this.”

GAO abx illustration.jpgIn the first section of the 80-page report, however, GAO explains how antibiotic-resistant bacteria can spread from animals to humans and provides an illustration of the relationship between use on the farm and human health.

(See Figure 1. Click to see detail. Source: GAO)

“Unsanitary conditions at slaughter plants and unsafe food handling practices could allow these bacteria to survive on meat products and reach a consumer,” explains the report. “Resistant bacteria may also spread to fruits, vegetables, and fish products through soil, well water, and water runoff contaminated by fecal matter from animals harboring these bacteria. If the bacteria are disease-causing, the consumer may develop an infection that is resistant to antibiotics.”

The report adds that though the use of antibiotics in animals poses a potential risk to human health, antibiotics have become an “integral part of intensive animal production.” According to GAO, the relationship between animal use and human health needs to be better understood, and health officials need more detailed and comprehensive data to analyze trends and progress.

The Union of Concerned Scientists responded to the report saying it confirms what public health advocates have been arguing for years — that not enough is being done to address the problem.

“The GAO report discovered what we already knew. The federal government has been sitting on its hands for years while farmers and ranchers continue to overuse antibiotics, putting Americans at risk,” said Justin Tatham, the Washington representative for UCS’s Food & Environment Program. “The scope of the problem is clear, and the solution is obvious. To avoid this growing threat of antibiotic resistance, livestock producers must stop dosing livestock with antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes such as accelerating growth and preventing diseases due to overcrowded, unsanitary conditions.

In the report, GAO recommends that the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture work together to (1) identify and evaluate approaches to collecting detailed data on antibiotic use in animals and use these data to evaluate FDA’s voluntary strategy, (2) collect more representative data on resistance, and (3) assess previous efforts on alternatives to identify where more research is needed.

HHS and USDA agreed with GAO’s recommendations.

The full report, which details the current challenges and barriers to sound data collection, is available here