A new federal policy aimed at reducing the unnecessary use of antibiotics in agriculture may not be as effective as officials intended — at least in the near-term — in addressing the alarming rise in drug resistance, a new report suggests.
Beginning Jan. 1, the Food and Drug Administration will impose a voluntary ban on the use of key antibiotics in healthy animals to promote growth, a practice that is contributing to the spread of so-called superbugs.
While the policy is voluntary, the makers of antibiotics for animals have agreed to comply, which means that starting next year food animal producers will no longer be able to simply buy these antibiotics at their supply stores. Veterinarians will need to oversee their use.
But analysts at the Pew Charitable Trusts who studied the labels of the nearly 400 medically important antibiotics — antibiotics used in both human and animal medicine — found that many suggest the drugs can be used to maintain weight in animals or to combat the possible negative impact of “stress” — loopholes that could allow the food animal industry to keep using the drugs to hit production goals.
“It basically allows these products to be used to make sure the animals keep growing,” said Karin Hoelzer, who works at the Pew Trusts on antibiotic resistance and food safety issues.
“The question is: Is it really judicious to use these drugs for something like stress, which probably in many cases can be prevented or mitigated through things like management practices?”
Nearly one-third of the labels examined by Pew also lacked crucial information, without which veterinarians may not know how long the drugs should be used, at what dosage they should be administered, or for which conditions they should be used.
The lack of information could cause sick animals to be undertreated — another scenario that could allow stronger bugs to develop resistance. Similar problems would arise if the animals were overtreated.
Pew called on the FDA to act to require drug labels be amended so that the new policy would prove more effective, though Hoelzer said that can’t be done in time for the Jan. 1 rollout.
The labels of nearly 30 percent of the drugs list either open-ended use or don’t define a duration for treatment. The FDA signaled in September that it wants to address this problem, calling for public comment on a plan to establish treatment time limits.
The comment period closes Dec. 13.
But a spokeswoman for the Animal Agriculture Alliance said firm labels could hamper the ability of veterinarians to make judgment calls.
“There’s really no way for a specific antibiotic to be labeled in an appropriate way for every different situation that a veterinarian is going to face,” said Hannah Thompson-Weeman, the group’s director of communications. “So our concern is if, like the report is calling for, there were specific doses and durations placed on every antibiotic, you’re limiting the flexibility that a veterinarian has to make those decisions to mitigate a specific threat.”
The use of medically important antibiotics has risen sharply in recent years in the United States. From 2009 to 2014 — the most recent year for which figures are available — sales increased 23 percent. It’s estimated that 70 percent of these drugs are used in agriculture.
The rise of antibiotic resistance threatens to undermine many of the advances of modern medicine. Experts warn that without rapid and concerted action, everyday operations may become too dangerous to perform and the longevity gains of the last century may begin to roll back.
The issue is of such concern that the problem was discussed last month during the UN General Assembly — only the fourth time ever that a health topic has risen to that level at the UN. Countries agreed to devise action plans aimed at trying to reduce inappropriate use.