FDA Plan Would Offer Clearer Picture of Antibiotic Use in Food Animals

May 20, 2015
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by Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter

Every year in the U.S., at least 2 million people get infections that are resistant to antibiotics and an estimated 23,000 people die as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration took aim at one of the primary factors contributing to the rise of potentially deadly, drug-resistant bacteria — the overuse of antibiotics. Specifically, the use of antibiotics in food animals.

Roughly 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. today go to farms. The drugs are used to treat medical conditions in animals, but they’ve also been used to help them grow faster on less feed.

The fear among public health officials, though, is that antibiotic resistant bacteria that form in food animals can ultimately be transferred to humans. The problem is the FDA lacks basic data on how antibiotics are being used on farms, in what quantity and for what specific purpose.

The FDA’s proposal would tackle at least one part of that problem, by requiring animal drug manufacturers to submit sales and distribution data broken down by species — chickens, pigs, cows or turkeys.

Currently, companies are not required to disclose that information broken down by class of animal. Lawmakers in Congress have tried to propose legislation that would require such disclosure, but with little success.

“Right now we have the massive number of how many kilograms or pounds of antibiotics are used,” says Dr. Gail Hansen, a senior officer for Pew Charitable Trusts’ antibiotic resistance project. “But we have no way to break that down by how much was used in pigs, or how much was used in turkeys.”

“If you’re really trying to look at how to change antibiotic use in animals you really need to be looking at it by species,” Hansen said. “It gives you a much clearer idea rather than seeing all animals together. It’s really looking at this in a way that we can make some policy decisions on.”

The FDA noted that while collecting species-specific information would “help provide a fuller picture,” more information was still needed to understand the link between the use of antibiotics on farms and antibiotic-resistance.

Watch “The Trouble with Antibiotics”

FRONTLINE investigates the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.

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