Monday, January 9, 2012

The F.D.A.’s Token Gesture - January 6th, 2012

My column last week described how the Food and Drug Administration is declining to regulate the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. After withdrawing its own 34-year-old request/promise to restrict the routine use of penicillin and tetracyclines in farm animal feed, the F.D.A. made it crystal clear that, despite the increasingly common threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in supermarket meat, it would leave the regulating up to industry itself.

Yesterday, however, the following headline appeared in this paper: Citing Drug Resistance, U.S. Restricts More Antibiotics for Livestock. Did the F.D.A. make a new year’s resolution to get off the couch when it comes to curbing antibiotics in agriculture? Not really. In fact, this is a pathetic, token, and infuriating effort.  What the F.D.A. did was to announce a ban on “extra-label uses” of the cephalosporin family of antibiotics on livestock. These medicines are commonly prescribed to treat pneumonia and skin infections in humans. Indeed, cephalosporins are especially useful for kids, and it would be a real drag if they were rendered ineffective from overuse in farm animals.

But they’re not the class of antibiotics relied upon by the meat industry to fatten its animals and its profits. Tom Philpott points out that about 54,000 pounds of cephalosporins were used in food-producing animals in 2010, which might sound like a lot until you consider that more than 29 million pounds of antibiotics were used on animals that year. (So cephalosporins make up less than 1 percent of the total by weight, one-quarter of 1 percent according to NRDC.) Philpott also says that the use of cephalosporins dropped 41 percent from 2009 to 2010. Note that the use of penicillin and tetracyclines – the drugs the F.D.A. chose not to regulate two weeks ago – increased 43 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

To recap, the F.D.A. will partially ban a disappearing family of antibiotics that is relatively non-existent in animal agriculture and that the meat industry does not rely upon. Not exactly a bold move. Kind of like protecting less than 1 percent of the acreage in the rainforest or 1 percent of the fish in the sea while allowing producers to devastate the rest, and patting yourself on the back to boot.

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