For years, the meat industry has received criticism for its overuse of antibiotics. The reasons are simple: Using too many antibiotics on livestock leads to resistance which, in turn, puts bacteria on a Darwinian path that ends in the development of superbugs that we have no defense against. It's scary stuff, but the warnings about it have generally come from independent watchdog groups.
Last week, however, criticism came from a group that has a bit more polish on their letterhead: A trio of U.S. Senators.
In a letter sent to the Food and Drug Administration, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Kirsten Gillebrand (D-NY) issued a long list of concerns over how the government agency is handling antibiotics usage in the food industry.
The letter is in response to the FDA's attempt last December to curb overuse. The plan dealt with farmers using antibiotics to stimulate growth in their animals. (A quick primer on antibiotic use: One of the reasons farmers pump their livestock full of them is because they increase the size of their animals, giving them more meat to sell at the market.) Essentially, they told veterinarians to stop prescribing antibiotics for, as they put it, "growth promotion."
But the policy still allows antibiotics to be used to prevent diseases. And this is where the Senators -- who are all from the Democratic side of the aisle -- have some issues:
[M]any of the remaining approved uses of antibiotics to contain and prevent diseases are not strictly defined, and still allow for the continuous administration of low doses of antibiotics. For example, approved uses to prevent or contain disease "in times of stress," or in asymptotic animals at locations that simply have a history of disease will remain on the market.
In other words, you know how you don't need an actual legitimate reason to get a prescription for medical marijuana these days, as long as the doctor is lax? Well, that's essentially the same level of regulation for farmers looking for antibiotics. (The senators also have issues with the high dosage and lack of time limits most veterinarian-approved prescriptions contain.)
What can the FDA do to satisfy the senators? Overall, they suggest tightening up the wording and coming up with a plan to inspect facilities to make sure they're on the up and up. Also, they suggest coming up with a system so everyone knows what companies are using which antibiotics, and when they're using them. These are all strong ideas -- especially the institution of a national database for animal antibiotic usage -- but what perhaps needs to be thrown into the mix is removing the "voluntary" part of the protocol.
See, the protocol that the senators are focused on (given the name "Guidance #213" in the FDA's official proceedings) is a voluntary directive to veterinary agencies. In June, all 26 drug manufacturers of the animal antibiotics in question agreed to implement the strategy. But there's a big difference between having a bunch of companies sign a letter of good intentions and actually enforcing a law.
Which leads us back to the senators. It's worth criticizing the FDA for weak wording, and try to urge them to come up with a stronger policy. But without the teeth of the law behind them to enact penalties for not complying, all the FDA can do is cross their fingers and really, really, really hope that the veterinarians help them out.
Real change needs to come from votes, not wishes.
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