It is so easy for newspapers and former government officials (of which I am one) to simplify a topic and confuse an issue. I applaud Drs. Kennedy and Kessler for their call in The New York Times and Washington Post for FDA to finish up on their work in Guidance 213. However, they are behind the curve. FDA and the animal drug companies have already worked for orderly phaseout of growth promotion uses of medically important antibiotics. In the near future, all medically important antibiotics used in food animals will be used only for therapeutic purposes under the supervision of a veterinarian.
However, what concerns me is the misinformation they are using to promote FDA’s action. This information may damage my patients, the animals. I understand it makes good headlines, but they know good policy cannot be made with a 20-second sound bite or an inflammatory headline. Therefore, I must correct some of information about on-farm antibiotic use. I will use the Wired article as basis for discussion.
First, the picture of drugs on a plate is an inflammatory and inaccurate visual which distorts the truth. Additionally, it is not even related to the real concern here: bacteria resistant to a specific antibiotic due to on-farm use. As we recently discussed on this blog, current FDA regulations on drug use require animal treatment to be discontinued in time for the medicine to leave the system (called a withdrawal period). USDA, which collects data every year, shows the withdrawal systems works very well. So THERE ARE NO DRUGS ON THE DINNER PLATE.
I do not support antibiotic overuse or misuse in agriculture or any other field, including human medicine. Thirty years ago, when I started veterinary practice, we were well-trained in prudent antibiotic use techniques, as antibiotics are a valuable on-farm resource to keep animals healthy until arriving at your dinner table. However, the companies which sell antibiotics report that only 13 percent of all product sold were sold under the “performance enhancement,” or growth promotion, label. The rest is for animals who need medicine to prevent and treat illness! Therefore, looking at the total volume of product sold is not meaningful to this debate. Although everyone continues to harp on this 80 percent number, it is important to understand that there are many more livestock in the U.S. than there are people; most are larger and need a larger dose. Also critical to this discussion, the types of antibiotics used in humans are much different than those used in animals.
My biggest concern is this broad-brush antibiotic bashing will harm my patients, the livestock who feed us. Readers need to understand that a livestock production is like running a day care or nursery. It is full of fresh, fragile babies. When a pig goes to market, it is only six months old and a chicken is only six weeks old! Whether they are raised indoors or out, organic or conventional, they all can get sick. It is wrong and unethical to withhold that treatment.
At the recent state fair, a turkey grower told me of removing 300 dead birds from his barn in one morning. They had “MG,” and he could not get the correct antibiotic. Drug companies are moving out of the animal health business due to the silly ideas like those in the Wired article and many others. Most of the antibiotics used on-farm are because sick and dying animals need medicine, not so the farmer can make a quick buck. ANIMALS NEED MEDICINE ALSO.