October 12, 2011

Not-So-Breaking News: Misuse of Antimicrobials Threatens Public Health

Tyler Smith

Tyler Smith

Program Officer, Food Production and Public Health

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

An article just out in Clinical Microbiology Reviews should put to rest the hotly contested debate about antimicrobial misuse in industrial food animal production (IFAP).  The review article, “Food Animals and Antimicrobials: Impacts on Human Health,” written by Bonnie Marshall and Stuart Levy of the Tufts University School of Medicine, provides one of the most comprehensive summaries to-date of the evidence linking antimicrobial misuse in IFAP to increased incidence of antimicrobial-resistant infections in humans, and it should silence accusations made by elected officials who contend that there is insufficient evidence to support restrictions on antimicrobial use in agriculture.

These accusations have grown louder in recent months.  In June of this year, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT) attached an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have prohibited the Food and Drug Administration from spending money to restrict the use of antimicrobials in the absence of “hard science.”  The “hard science amendment,” poorly written and clumsily introduced, was stripped from the legislation before it passed the House.  But the arguments presented by Rehberg and other members nevertheless reveal a strident—and unwarranted—skepticism of existing scientific knowledge about antimicrobial resistance.

Speaking on the House floor, Rehberg intoned (excerpt is at 4:02:12):

I offered this language in committee on behalf of ranchers in Montana.  They sat across the table from me and shared the significant concerns they have over the lack of a scientific basis being used by the FDA in developing rules and regulations affecting their ranches and the livestock industry.  For me this isn’t faceless regulation.  The consequences of these regulations have faces; they wear cowboy boots.

Before Rehberg spoke, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) also criticized the FDA and its efforts to limit the misuse of antimicrobials (excerpt is at 3:59:24):

We believe that policy decisions at the FDA should be based on science and not on any irrelevant consideration.  As much as officials at the FDA claim that their decisions are based on sound science, their recent actions give us pause.

The Washington Post quoted members who made similar claims. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the FDA’s budget, told a reporter:

We have had discussions on the antibiotics used for livestock and pork and how they’re [FDA] not using sound science on that, and I’m glad the gentleman [Rehberg] has offered this amendment and I support it.

A review article, Marshall and Levy’s piece does not offer additional evidence. Rather, in summarizing the results of 165 previous publications, Marshall and Levy have produced a clear and concise overview of what those in the public health community have known for some time: the misuse of antimicrobials in IFAP selects for antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, and these bacteria can cause infections in humans that do not respond to existing antimicrobial drugs.

It has long been ironic that allies of industrial agriculture insist that regulatory agencies adhere to “hard” or “sound” science while ignoring the mountain of scientific evidence that already exists. With such a clear presentation of this evidence, it should be impossible for Reps. Rehberg, Lance, and Kingston and others to argue that Congress and the FDA lack the evidence they need to prevent the misuse of antimicrobials in IFAP.  Whether or not they persist with their unfounded objections remains to be seen.


  1. Great post, Tyler.

    I’m surprised to hear ranchers expressing concerns over antimicrobial use. Are antimicrobials given to cattle for growth-promoting purposes while the animals are still on pasture? I had assume most (if not all) antimicrobials were administered in feed once the cattle were on feedlots.

  2. Pingback: FDA Enters Withdrawal: Agency Must Pursue Limits on Penicillins and Tetracyclines | Center for a Livable Future

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