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Drug makers agree to curb antibiotic use for farm animals

March 30, 2014 at 7:02 PM EST
Scientists point to the amount of antibiotics in livestock as one of the causes of the rise of antibiotic resistant diseases. On Wednesday a number of pharmaceutical companies agreed to abide by a government proposal to stop labeling drugs important for treating human infections as acceptable antibiotics to spur farm animal growth. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with NPR correspondent Dan Charles.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: There’s been growing interest in the rise of antibiotic resistant diseases. One cause scientists point to is the number of those antibiotics in livestock. This week a number of pharmaceutical companies agreed to abide by a government proposal to stop labeling drugs important for treating human infections as acceptable antibiotics to spur farm animal growth. To tell us about the latest developments this past week, we’re joined from Washington by Dan Charles, he is NPR’s food and agriculture correspondent. So Dan, I want to ask, I mean what are the drugs we’re talking about? What are they used for?

DAN CHARLES: Well they’re used in animals for a number of different things. There are three different classes of uses. There’s the growth promotion use, which is the one they’re trying to get rid of. There’s the disease prevention use, which is you think an animal is under stress, might get sick, is exposed to sickness so you want to head that off before the animal gets sick. Or there’s actually treating a sick animal. But there’s a lot of antibiotics used, many of them overlap with antibiotics that are used in human health.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So when they say that they’re not going to produce these antibiotics for spurring growth, does that mean they can’t use these for curing diseases?

DAN CHARLES: No, they can still use it to treat diseases. There’s a little uncertainty about how much antibiotic use on the farm is for this growth promotion use which has been so controversial. The industry says it’s maybe 15 percent. There’s some statistics in pigs which indicates maybe 20 percent. Some critics in the past have said it’s much more than that. But they’re now saying these drugs cannot be used just routinely in feed to promote growth. They can still be used for preventing disease and that’s where it gets a little tricky because that’s a judgement call. When is an antibiotic actually needed? When is it not? How much disease could you tolerate? So that’s where there’s going to be a lot of attention.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how much will this affect the meat that’s on store shelves?

DAN CHARLES: In a way it won’t affect the meat really very much at all. It’s useful to remember we’re not really talking about the risks of antibiotic residues on the meat. We’re talking about the risks of the antibiotic use on the farm creating bacteria in the animals that will be resistant to the antibiotics, so that the antibiotics will be less useful when we’re treating humans. The question is how much will this affect activities on the farm? Will it really reduce the use of antibiotics? And that’ll depend on judgement calls in this category of disease prevention. How much antibiotics are necessary? How much can the farmer get rid of without compromising the health of the animals? That’s going to be interesting to observe as we go forward.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So why the voluntary approach? Why not regulate these drugs?

DAN CHARLES: Well, the FDA’s argument was if you actually put a formal regulatory proposal, you know out there, and you know your comment period and had the potential for lawsuits it could actually take much longer and be much more expensive and accomplished less in the end than if you basically work with industry and say, “look, you know, these uses cannot be justified and so just work with us here and eliminate these growth promotion uses.” And the industry, in this case, went along with it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright Dan Charles from NPR joining us from Washington. Thanks so much.

DAN CHARLES: My pleasure.