Sabrina Tavernise on new FDA proposals on drugs for farm animals

December 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT


JOHN LARSON: A potentially important story that got little attention this week was a proposal by the Food and Drug Administration to limit the use of antibiotics in farm animals. Health officials worry that overuse of these drugs makes us more vulnerable to infectious diseases. For more about the FDA’s proposal and the likelihood that it will be implemented, we are joined now from Washington by Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times. She’s written extensively about the topic. Sabrina, thanks so much for joining us. What are these new rules?

SABRINA TAVERNISE: So, John, the rules essentially lay out changes that the pharmaceutical industry needs to make to the labels of drugs they make for farm animals, uh, antibiotic drugs. Uh, and essentially, uh, once the changes are made, uh, that will mean that the—the farmers and ranchers and the agricultural businesses will no longer be able to use antibiotics in feed and water, um, for growth promotion purposes, in other words, uh, to make the animals grow faster and be plumper.

JOHN LARSON: And we know that these proposals, these rules are al—already coming under criticism. Why is that?

SABRINA TAVERNISE: So, essentially there’s a great deal of skepticism in the public health community, understandably, uh, that the agricultural businesses are going to use a loophole, uh, to essentially allow them to continue using the same low doses of antibiotics over the course of a lifetime of the animal and just say, for example, they needed to use it for disease-prevention purposes instead of for growth-promotion purposes. So, in other words, to keep the animals from getting sick.

JOHN LARSON: Your sense is though, however, this is—they’re going to be more than just a, uh, “why don’t you do and—and trust us to do the right thing” type of regulation. You feel like there—there are some more teeth to it.

SABRINA TAVERNISE: I think so. I mean, the skepticism on the part of the public health people is understandable. It’s been years, decades even, uh, with very, very little action on this problem. We’ve gotten to the point in human health where, uh, infectious disease doctors and pediatricians are ju—extrememly worried about this. Uh, but, you know, essentially, the FDA’s response is, well, there are going to have to be prescriptions from veterinarians, so—so, it won’t just be, uh, like it is now, where, uh, farmers and ranchers can simply go to a feed store and buy as much of this stuff as they like. Uh, you know, for human health, we have to get prescriptions for antibiotics, but that is not the case for farms and farm animals.

JOHN LARSON: Sabrina, you had written in some of your articles that the CDC has some alarming new numbers on this.

SABRINA TAVERNISE: Yes, the CDC says 2 million Americans get sick every year from these antibiotic-resistant bugs and about 23,000 of them die.

JOHN LARSON: So, what’s the timeframe here? How-how’s the rollout going to proceed?

SABRINA TAVERNISE: The FDA is, uh, taking the temperature of the pharmaceutical companies. It’s giving them three months, uh, to tell the agency whether they will be participating, and then it will be—they will have actually three years to, uh, make the changes.

JOHN LARSON: Sabrina Tavernise joining us from Washington, DC. Thank you so much.