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Avinash Kar’s Blog

Big ag and pharma industries don't want the FDA to protect your health

Avinash Kar

Posted June 7, 2011 in Health and the Environment

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Things on the antibiotic and livestock front have not been quiet since my last post.  Last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to an appropriations bill proposed by Rep. Rehberg (R-MT) which was approved in part, as its supporters explain in this Washington Post article, to prevent the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from regulating the use of antibiotics in livestock.  That is precisely the issue raised by a lawsuit that NRDC and its partners filed against the FDA on May 25, a week before the amendment was approved by the Committee.  The lawsuit aims to force FDA's action on the massive and unnecessary use of antibiotics on healthy animals that is a key contributor to the dangerous rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Opposition responses to the NRDC lawsuit have been fast, predictable, and  . . . largely reliant on wishful thinking.  They also display a remarkable lack of concern for people's health.  (You can read more about the lawsuit and see the legal documents and fact sheet here, here, here (scroll to the bottom), and here).

When you consider the other effects of the Rehberg amendment and of other measures approved by the House Appropriations Committee, you see a pattern emerge—one that puts corporate interests over public health.  As the Washington Post story reports, the Rehberg amendment itself would also prevent the FDA from considering cost and consumer behavior in making decisions.  For instance, it would prevent FDA from taking into account evidence that use of menthol in cigarettes makes it more likely that young people will take up smoking.  Another measure in the bill approved by the Committee directs the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to scale back its participation in the development of voluntary guidelines (for companies that market food to children) that are designed to address high rates of childhood obesity. The bill approved by the Committee also directs the USDA to abandon new nutritional standards for school breakfasts and lunches that would require more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy!  Wow. 

What's also striking is the extent to which the arguments put forward by the proponents of the amendment match the livestock and pharmaceutical industries’ responses to the lawsuit, trying to create controversy where there is little by questioning the science.  (That’s an old play: I seem to remember that the tobacco industry claimed cigarettes weren’t dangerous.) 

However, in reality, a long list of scientific, medical, and health organizations and authorities agree that there is ample scientific evidence that the overuse and misuse of antibiotics on healthy animals is a major factor in the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  To name a few, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the American College of Preventive Medicine, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the FDA, the USDA and the US Department of Health & Human Services, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),and the World Health Organization (WHO) all recognize that science shows  the use of antibiotics on healthy animals is contributing to public health risks for people.  In fact, the WHO made the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria the focus of World Health Day this year, recommending, among other measures, that we put a stop to the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on healthy animals, which is unnecessarily putting public health at risk. 

Last week, my colleagues posted a blog about one of the landmark scientific studies showing that the use of antibiotics on livestock leads to greater human exposures to bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics. The study also highlights how the removal of low-dose antibiotics from animal feed can lead to a significant decrease in the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  This is the kind of evidence-based hard science that groups like the World Health Organization rely on when recommending that we ban the use of antibiotics on healthy animals.  And it’s the kind of evidence-based hard science the Rehberg amendment would negate by allowing the continued use of a pharmaceutical unless it has no benefits at all.

In the end, the question boils down to who you believe.  The industries (and their congressional supporters) with a vested interested in protecting the continuing, uncontrolled use of antibiotics on healthy animals?  Or leading public health, scientific, and medical organizations around the world?

The sad thing is that even industry's assessment of its own interest seems misguided, given that Denmark, the world's largest pork exporter, has reduced the use of antibiotics dramatically without adverse economic impacts, while increasing pork production and decreasing the presence of antibiotic resistance in meat. 

Where is the entrepreneurial ingenuity and can-do spirit of the livestock industry on this issue?  Why isn’t the industry putting that ingenuity and spirit to good use solving the real problem rather than fighting changes that would significantly reduce public health risks without a significant impact on the industry’s bottom line?

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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