Senators to FDA: get data on antibiotics in food-producing livestock

For the second time this year, a group of U.S. Senators is pressing the FDA to strengthen its oversight of antibiotics that are used in food-producing livestock. In a letter sent yesterday to the agency, the senators say they want FDA officials to collect data on the extent to which these medicines are used by food producers. At issue is growing concern that humans are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics that are widely used in food-producing animals.

Antibiotic resistance has been blamed for at least 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths annually in the U.S. alone, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which called for minimizing use. More recently, the Obama administration released a game plan for coping with the problem.

But the FDA has been criticized by some lawmakers and consumer groups for relying on a voluntary plan to curb antibiotic use. The agency has received commitments from 26 drug makers to remove from product labeling any mention of antibiotics for promoting animal growth. Weight gain makes animals better suited for increased food production.

The FDA plan goes into effect in 2016. But the senators wrote the FDA last July about concerns the agency may not be able to determine the extent to which improper use actually declines. They also asked the FDA officials which, if any, steps they are prepared to take if no change in usage is seen and how the agency plans to collect data on antibiotic use.

This latest missive about data collection is somewhat more explicit, though. The senators – California’s Dianne Feinstein, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand and Iowa’s Tom Harkin, all of whom are Democrats – are now asking the FDA to issue a rule to increase data collection and develop a plan specifically to collect data on how antibiotics are used on farms.

The “current antibiotic use and resistance monitoring system has shortcomings,” they write. “… Data on antibiotic use and resistance enables federal agencies to take action to protect the public health and supports research into better understanding complex questions related to the development of antibiotic resistance and potential links to human health.”

Will the FDA take their advice? This is uncertain. We asked the agency for comment and will update you accordingly. It is worth noting that Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Ca.) last year introduced a bill to gather data on antibiotic use in food-producing livestock. And Gillibrand did the same in the Senate, but these efforts have stalled.

As we have reported previously, consumer groups had pressed the FDA to ban antibiotic use for food-producing livestock, but last July, a federal appeals court ruled that the agency does not have to do.

Nov. 13, 2014 The Wall Street Journal