CLF Responds to NYT ‘Farm and Antibiotics’ Editorial

Today’s New York Times carries an editorial, “Farms and Antibiotics,” in support of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, calling for withdrawal of FDA approval of nontherapeutic use of antimicrobial drugs critical to human medicine. Reprinted below is a letter submitted to the Times by the Center for a Livable Future:

We applaud the New York Times for drawing attention to the critical issue of the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in factory farms (“Farms and Antibiotics,” July 23, 2009).

We would like to clarify that PAMTA (The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act) calls for withdrawal of FDA approval of nontherapeutic use of antimicrobial drugs critical to human medicine, defining “nontherapeutic” as follows:

The term ‘nontherapeutic use’, with respect to a critical antimicrobial animal drug, means any use of the drug as a feed or water additive for an animal in the absence of any clinical sign of disease in the animal for growth promotion, feed efficiency, weight gain, routine disease prevention, or other routine purpose.

The Times and the PAMTA definition of nontherapeutic use of “routine disease prevention” suggests that administration of antimicrobials for non-routine disease prevention may be warranted.

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), an academic center that has supported an extensive portfolio of research on antimicrobial use in animal agriculture, maintains that use of antimicrobials in the absence of clinically-observable disease selects for resistant bacteria, and is therefore never warranted. The only permissible administration of antimicrobials in the setting of animal agriculture is on an individual animal basis, under the circumstances of overt disease, and at the direction of a veterinarian.

Your editorial notes industry opposition to the bill, indicating fears that it would make it “much harder for industrial farms to crowd thousands of animals together in confined, inhumane and unhealthy quarters.” No data support concerns that the cessation of antimicrobial use for growth promotion or disease prophylaxis will result in losses to the animal agriculture industry. In fact, a WHO evaluation of the termination of antimicrobial growth promoter usage in Denmark found that cessation of their use led to approximately a one percent increase in cost to swine producers and no net cost to poultry producers. Coupled with evidence (cited in PAMTA) that antimicrobial use in animal production increases antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the environment andresistant bacteria in meat products, ending their routine use will provide a substantial public health benefit.

We also applaud Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Principal Deputy Commissioner of the FDA, for recognizing the importance of PAMTA.

The relentless increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a major threat to the health of the public, and policymakers should move quickly to phase out and ban the use of antimicrobials for non-therapeutic use in food animal production. PAMTA is a good beginning.

Robert S. Lawrence, MD
Director, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Keeve E. Nachman, Ph.D.
Science Director, Food Production, Health and Environment, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

The Changing Food Landscape and the FDA

Baltimore’s former health commissioner, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, is making news as the new deputy director of the FDA, serving under the new commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg. Hamburg and Sharfstein have pledged to reform the food safety system and encourage scientific exchange and better communication to the public.

In the New England Journal of Medicine, Hamburg and Sharfstein acknowledged the difficulty of decision-making at the FDA, often in the absence of complete information, and admitted that recent high profile contaminations (peanut butter, anyone?) have rightfully caused the public to question the agency.

This is certainly a daunting task, but Hamburg and Sharfstein seem ready for the challenge (see some background on them here).

Indeed, there are many aspects of the food system that advocates for public health, the environment, animal welfare and social justice have identified as areas in dire need of improvement. The FDA will have the authority to address some of these issues, but not all. Some recent articles have discussed complicating factors that may impact the safety of the nation’s food supply. Read More >