The new FDA is stepping into the debate over antibiotics in livestock. Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein (photo) wrote to the House Rules Committee, supporting restrictions on use of the drugs. It should be verboten to feed antibiotics to farm animals that aren't sick, Sharfstein wrote, adding that farmers shouldn't be able to give antibiotics to their animals without veterinary supervision. Rep. Louise Slaughter, who chairs that committee, has proposed a ban on animal use of seven types of antibiotics, plus restriction of other antibiotic drugs to mostly therapeutic uses.
As you know, there's been vigorous disagreement over animal antibiotics. The Union of Concerned Scientists says that some 70 percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to healthy livestock and poultry to boost growth or prevent illness. Farmers say they need the drugs to raise healthy animals; human health advocates point to research suggesting that overuse of antibiotics in animals help germs develop drug resistance. This new legislation amounts to a microcosm of that debate. It's supported by the American Medical Association, but opposed by the farm lobby, including the National Pork Producers Council. The bill probably won't get anywhere on its own, but supporters hope it might in some way be attached to healthcare reform legislation.
Interestingly, this latest skirmish comes at a time when drugmakers are furiously bidding for animal-health assets that have come up for possible sale because of Big Pharma megamergers. If the transactions materialize, they'll add up to billions. So how does a diversified drugmaker feel about antibiotics in animals? After all, if the resistance studies are true, then its antibiotics grow less useful the more veterinary drugs are used. But at the same time, restricting that use could cut into animal-health sales. What do you think?