Antibiotic Use in Livestock Feed: Trust But Verify?
By Sarah Borron
The misuse of antibiotics in livestock feed, known as “subtherapeutic use,” is an ongoing problem in U.S. agriculture and a threat to public health. The practice of feeding large groups of livestock antibiotics whether or not they are sick contributes to the development and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, threatening people with diseases that are harder to treat.
The FDA, the government agency responsible for tackling this problem, has touted its voluntary initiatives to encourage the industry to change its practices. But Food & Water Watch has spoken out against subtherapeutic use of antibiotics and supports a legislative ban on the practice. We don’t think a voluntary ban is enough, and, thanks to internal FDA documents obtained from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), we discover that FDA isn’t so sure the plan will work either.
PEER requested documentation from the FDA on industry’s support for the voluntary guidance on antibiotic use in livestock. Instead, PEER received internal memos revealing that FDA staff acknowledged serious concerns:
- A weakness of the voluntary strategy is its reliance on industry cooperation and lack of deadlines in the guidance. Some emails show that FDA staff are not confident the industry will comply.
- Regulations might be necessary to reduce antibiotic use in livestock feed in a timely fashion.
- The FDA doesn’t even collect enough data to evaluate the effectiveness of the voluntary strategy.
- The FDA tweaked language in the voluntary guidance to improve the agency’s chances of winning an appeal on a lawsuit that would force it to regulate subtherapeutic antibiotic use. The lawsuit states clearly that voluntary strategies are unacceptable.
We’re left scratching our heads. The threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is real and pressing. The voluntary strategy may or may not work. After decades of delay, why dilly-dally with a voluntary strategy instead of writing and enforcing regulations to do the job effectively?
As we press Congress and the FDA on the larger issue of subtherapeutic antibiotic use, there’s one action you can take today to improve the situation. The FDA is requesting feedback on how to improve its data collection on antibiotics used in livestock feed. No matter what, we need that data to see if the situation is getting better or worse. Take a moment today to ensure accountability and transparency as we work to change this issue.