Will the FDA Finally Get Serious About Animal Antibiotics?

By Shawn Dwyer 01/13/14

A recent report by Salon magazine points to the collusion between Big Ag and the U.S. government to keep the food supply pumped up with resistance-building antibiotics.

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No one here but us chickens...and Salmonella.
Photo via Shutterstock

For decades, the public health and scientific communities have been sounding the alarm over the potential dangers of increasingly harmful pathogens coming from factory farms and infiltrating the human population. But it’s only recently that the government has even made the most minimal of efforts in combating the problem, perhaps due in large part to their own complicity in allowing Big Ag to pump farm animals full of antibiotics.

In 2011, a joint letter written by the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics voiced their concern to Congress about the costly effects of increased antibiotics on human health. “The evidence is so strong of a link between misuse of antibiotics in food animals and human antibiotic resistance,” they said, “that FDA and Congress should be acting much more boldly and urgently to protect these vital drugs for human illness. Overuse and misuse of important antibiotics in food animals must end.” Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), a former microbiologist and advocate for reforming the system, agreed. “This is a catastrophe waiting to happen,” she said in Salon. “Scientists of great repute say that if this continues, within a decade strep throat or a cut could become fatal. The American public has got to get around to this fight.”

While the cause for concern has been well documented, it still doesn’t appear that the government – particularly the Food and Drug Administration – is ready to do anything meaningful about the antibiotics poisoning the food supply. At the end of last year, the FDA begrudgingly made the smallest of steps toward reform by issuing new guidelines known as Final Guidance 2013, which basically continued its approach of voluntary recommendations to corporate farmers. “The effect will be to change the label, not the practice,” said Jonathan Kaplan, director of Food and Agriculture programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s clear that the agencies are extremely reluctant to challenge two of the most powerful lobbies in the country. Unwilling to pick that fight, they’re trying to make progress with things like this voluntary system.”

Meanwhile, more virulent strains of infectious disease continue to permeate the food chain. Just this month, over 34,000 pounds of chicken was recalled from Tyson Foods, Inc. for Salmonella contamination. And at the same time the FDA released its guidelines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that over 400 people from 23 states and Puerto Rico were stricken by strains of Salmonella ominously called Heidelberg. Their report stated pointed to antibiotics resistance as the cause. “The outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg are resistant to several commonly prescribed antibiotics,” the CDC report said. “This antibiotic resistance may be associated with an increased risk of hospitalization.”

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Shawn Dwyer is a writer, editor and content producer living in Los Angeles. You can find him on Linkedin.