As antibiotic-resistant superbugs continue to be a threat to human health, the Food and Drug Administration is trying to rein in the overuse of drugs in livestock with a new voluntary labeling policy. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report directly linking antibiotic resistance to factory farms.
Last year, the FDA proposed the voluntary label changes, which two major pharmaceutical companies have agreed to make. Such labels should make it necessary to receive a prescription from a veterinarian in order to use antibiotics.
The FDA is claiming victory, The New York Times reports:
This is the agency’s first serious attempt in decades to curb what experts have long regarded as the systematic overuse of antibiotics in healthy farm animals, with the drugs typically added directly into their feed and water. The waning effectiveness of antibiotics — wonder drugs of the 20th century — has become a looming threat to public health. At least two million Americans fall sick every year and about 23,000 die from antibiotic-resistant infections.
“This is the first significant step in dealing with this important public health concern in 20 years,” said David Kessler, a former F.D.A. commissioner who has been critical of the agency’s track record on antibiotics. “No one should underestimate how big a lift this has been in changing widespread and long entrenched industry practices.”
Yet there are plenty of critics of the measure, which doesn't exclude the use of antibiotics for the prevention of disease, only the fattening of animals. This 'loophole" means that it's still legal to dose animals that aren't actually sick, as Tom Philpott at Mother Jones points out :
"Of course, there's little distinction between giving animals small daily doses of antibiotics to prevent disease and giving them small daily doses to make them put on weight. The industry can simply claim it's using antibiotics "preventively," continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continue to generate resistant bacteria. That's the loophole."
Another critic is Michele Simon, public health lawyer and author of "Appetite for Profit":
Some media outlets getting FDA antibiotics move wrong (including @nytimes) Proposal is entirely voluntary. Bad sign: Meat Institute likes it— Michele Simon JD MPH (@MicheleRSimon) December 12, 2013
The FDA will give the voluntary program three years, and then will evaluate if more binding requirements are necessary.
Avinash Kar at the Natural Resources Defense Council doesn't seem optimistic about the promise:
"We hope that FDA means what it says about shifting to binding regulations if this voluntary approach doesn’t work and that it will stick to the timelines it has laid out. But you will forgive me if I don’t express great faith in an agency that has been dragging its feet on this issue of antibiotic use in livestock and antibiotic resistance for the last 35 years."