FDA trusts vets to curb antibiotic use, but are ties to drug companies too tight?

Under a new FDA policy that goes into effect this year, veterinarians will be the gatekeepers who decide whether to prescribe antibiotics to farm animals. This is a major change--a sweeping policy that's meant to halt the rampage of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that endanger human health. The idea behind the rule is to prevent long-standing practices that allowed farmers to buy antibiotics over the counter and feed them to animals to prompt faster growth.

But will empowering veterinarians work? A recent investigation by Reuters suggests that financial allegiances between veterinarians and drug companies--high-paying speaking gigs, stock ownership, and the like--may cloud veterinarians' judgments as to when antibiotics should be prescribed.

Similar concerns about conflicts of interest in human medicine led to the 2010 passage of the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, which requires drug companies to disclose payments they make to doctors. No such law governs veterinary medicine, however.

Data collected by Reuters shows that 11 out of the 22 veterinarians who have been advising the FDA regarding antibiotics in animal health received payments from pharmaceutical companies. Gatz Riddell of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, for example, owned more than $25,000 worth of Pfizer's ($PFE) stock when he evaluated a competing company's antibiotic for the FDA. His association also receives funding from Pfizer spinoff Zoetis ($ZTS) and other drugmakers, according to Reuters.

Some experts are concerned that such cozy ties between veterinarians and drug companies could endanger human health. Even though warnings about antibiotics in food animals contributing to the rise of drug-resistant "superbugs" have been out there for years, antibiotics use on farms actually jumped 16% from 2009 to 2012, the FDA recently reported.

"I think the issue is much more germane to the health of humans now, because we're talking about antibiotic use in animals that we're eating and that could potentially affect the effectiveness of antibiotics that we use for our own health," Tufts Medical School professor Dr. Daniel Carlat told Reuters. Carlat studied medical conflicts of interest for the nonprofit agency Pew Charitable Trust. "Suddenly, conflicts of interest in veterinary medicine have become quite relevant for humans. … We need to know more."

The Reuters investigation--the third in a series the news organization has done on antibiotics use in farm animals--is just the latest beating the animal health industry has taken in the press. Last month, the Indianapolis Star concluded an investigative story that raised questions about the FDA's rigor in approving animal drugs, in addition to exposing financial relationships between veterinarians and drug companies that it alleged contributed to high sales of Trifexis, an Eli Lilly ($LLY) chewable flea-and-tick fighter that has been tied to several deaths in dogs.

So should there be a Sunshine Act for veterinarians? When told of Reuters' findings about antibiotics, U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York, vowed to introduce legislation requiring the disclosure of payments to veterinarians from pharmaceutical companies.

- here's the Reuters story