Report: FDA allowed 'high risk' animal antibiotics to remain in use on U.S. farms

The FDA has done a sorry job of regulating antibiotics for animals, a new report contends. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a longtime critic of the agency's oversight of feed additives, analyzed a slew of FDA documents to come to that conclusion. Among its findings: The FDA's own scientists found 18 farm antibiotics posed a "high risk" of spawning antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A cattle farm--Wendy North, CC BY-SA 2.0
A cattle farm--Wendy North, Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0

Among the documents is an FDA report that compared 30 antibiotic feed additives against two sets of safety standards: those established by the FDA in 1973, and those in place since 2003. At least 26 of them don't satisfy the 1973 rules, and none would likely win approval under the agency's current standards for antimicrobial safety.

Indeed, the FDA's scientific reviewers determined that 18 of the 30 posed a "high risk" of exposing humans to resistant bacteria through the food chain. The agency didn't have enough data--submitted by the manufacturers--to determine whether the other 12 were safe. Two of these drugs have been withdrawn by their makers, but the FDA hasn't pulled its blessing on any of the 30, NRDC says. At least 9 are still on the market.

According to the NRDC, when the agency cracked down on makers of the suspect antibiotic additives, they often met with another type of resistance. The FDA actually asked a drugmaker to pull one of the antibiotic products "due to increased concern from public officials and members of the healthcare community," but not only did the company continue to sell the product, but there's no record that the manufacturer ever followed up on the agency's requests for additional data. The antibiotic, used as a growth promoter in feed, is still on the market, the report says.

As Wired points out, the report makes clear that agency scientists have raised red flags about a number of feed additives still used on farms across the country. FDA reviewers have brought up these concerns repeatedly over the years, and though the agency has taken some action on animal antibiotics, plenty of worrisome products remain on the market. Congress hasn't always helped the cause, either. Neither have the drugmakers themselves.

The FDA tells Bloomberg that the agency has decided to make "non-therapeutic uses" of antibiotics in animal feed illegal. "The FDA is confident that its current strategy to protect the effectiveness of medically important antimicrobials, including penicillins and tetracyclines, is the most efficient and effective way to change the use of these products in animal agriculture," FDA spokesperson Siobhan DeLancey said.

The NRDC says the agency's voluntary phase-out of antibiotics as growth promoters isn't enough to curb use of the 30 additives it reviewed. 

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