September 21, 2011
The pork and beef industries are having a field day with the recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on antibiotic resistance—and they are distorting the findings dramatically. Both industries are saying that the GAO found insufficient evidence to link antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in humans. But what the report really tells us is that the FDA and USDA are not doing a good enough job collecting data on the connection between antibiotic use and resistance.
Two years ago, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D–NY) asked the GAO, the impartial research arm of Congress, to look into the efforts of two federal agencies (FDA and USDA) to curb antibiotic resistance that results from the inappropriate use of antimicrobials in food animal production. The GAO’s mandates included an examination of the extent to which these federal agencies are collecting data on the issue, as well as examinations of lessons learned by FDA and regulators in Denmark and the European Union. I think it’s very important to note that Rep. Slaughter did not ask the GAO to evaluate the extensive scientific literature connecting the use of antibiotics in food animal production to antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.
In a memo released last Wednesday, Rep. Slaughter said, “This study reveals how unprepared we are to deal with the growing threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria and the American public should be outraged.” A day later, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) released a statement in which she said, “The findings of this report are clear: the FDA does not have the tools it needs to prohibit the inappropriate use of antibiotics in livestock production.” The GAO study’s title, by the way, is “Agencies Have Made Limited Progress Addressing Antibiotic Use in Animals.”
Industry representatives are using the report to bolster the case for inaction. But their claims simply aren’t true. The GAO report found many inadequacies—but with federal agencies, not the science. Indeed, there is no debate in the medical or public health communities that the misuse of antimicrobials in food animal production is a serious problem that must be addressed immediately. The American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and dozens of other marquee medical and public health organizations have endorsed the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA).
I think that the Union of Concerned Scientists put it most succinctly: “The GAO report discovered what we already knew. The federal government has been sitting on its hands for years while farmers and ranchers continue to overuse antibiotics, putting Americans at risk.”