Drug makers who sell antibiotics to farmers will soon have to issue reports with estimates of the amount of antibiotics sold for use in specific food animals.
Today the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalized its ruling requiring companies who sell antimicrobials meant for food animals to break those reports down by species that include cattle, swine, chickens, and turkeys.
“This information will further enhance FDA’s ongoing activities related to slowing the development of antimicrobial resistance to help ensure that safe and effective antimicrobial new animal drugs will remain available for use in human and animal medicine,” Dr. William T. Flynn, D.V.M., M.S., deputy director for science policy in the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, said in a press release.
The new sales data will be used to help the FDA understand how antibiotics and other drugs are sold to the food industry in the hope of targeting efforts that ensure medically important drugs are used properly.
Currently, drug makers are required to provide overall estimates on information they submit about the amount of antimicrobial drugs they sell or distribute for use in food animals.
According to those estimates, about 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are for animals meant for the dinner table. The use of medically important antimicrobials used in animals increased 23 percent from 2009 to 2014, according to the FDA.
In the United Sates, roughly 2 million people are sickened or hospitalized by antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year. About 23,000 of those people will die.
Major health organizations like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have declared the issue a worldwide epidemic.
Some of these “super bugs” have developed defenses around even the strongest antibiotics, spurring government and health organizations to develop policies to preserve the effectiveness of current antibiotics.
In general, the more antibiotics are used — in humans and animals — the less effective they become.
Tracking Antibiotics on the Farm
The majority of those antibiotics are needed in human medicine. But how they are currently being used is at the core of the debate around how to slow the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria.
For years, antibiotics were routinely given to food animals in feed and water for the purpose of growth promotion.
Under FDA Guidance to Industry 213, established in 2013, drug manufacturers have until December of this year to label the drugs to show they aren’t being used for that purpose. It also requires removing the drugs from over-the-counter availability to “veterinary feed directive” or “prescription” status.
While using antibiotics for growth promotion is now shunned, the same practice of routinely adding them to water and feed is still allowed under the premise of disease prevention. This is often done to compensate for the crowded, dirty conditions food animals are housed in.
Avinash Kar, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council who has taken the FDA to court over the issue, said while the new FDA ruling is welcomed, the issue is far from being solved.
“It’s a modest improvement, but we need new and better data. Breaking it down by species doesn’t help us understand what it’s being used for,” he told Healthline. “It’ll be a bit of a guess. Many of these antibiotics are sold for different animals.”
Essentially, critics argue, it’s like asking car manufacturers how many cars were sold to Uber drivers. Instead, you’d get better data from asking the driver.
Waiting for Legislation
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), a microbiologist who has repeatedly introduced legislation to curb widespread antibiotic use in farm animals, says she’ll continue to push the FDA to “quickly expand its efforts to on-farm surveillance so that new antibiotics remain effective and don’t go the way of current drugs.”
“We’ve been waiting on this for years, and it’s disappointing that these changes to collect species-specific use of antibiotics are only being made as a result of growing public pressure,” she said in a statement. “The connection between the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture and the rise of superbugs that kill thousands of humans each year is clear.”
Last May, Slaughter introduced the Delivering Antimicrobial Transparency in Animals (DATA) Act, which would enhance data collection about antibiotics used inside the food animal industry.
According to GovTrack.us, a nongovernment website that tracks federal legislation, the bill has a 2 percent chance of being enacted into law
The latest FDA ruling also requires the agency to publish its summary report on antimicrobial sales and distribution by Dec. 31 of the following year.