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Mae Wu’s Blog

Housekeeping Tip #1: To keep a Senate bill "clean," sweep all mention of one of the world's most pressing public health problems under the rug.

Mae Wu

Posted February 28, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment

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broom.jpg “Thank you for having a clean bill.”

                              – Senator Roberts (R-KS)

 “I hope we can keep it a clean bill.”

                               – Senator Harkin (D-IA)

 “I urge you to move a clean … bill.”

                               –  Industry witness

In a recent Senate health committee hearing chaired by Senator Tom Harkin, everyone kept talking about a “clean” bill in reference to the latest animal drug legislation. This is Washington-speak for keeping amendments off of a piece of legislation so that it stays “clean” and passes easily. But in this case, what sounds non-controversial and laudable – even healthy – is actually code for ignoring the elephant in the hearing room: the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in livestock.

My colleague Avi Kar has blogged extensively about this problem and how it contributes to the crisis of antibiotic resistance, which is putting the effectiveness of essential medicines at risk. There is no question that antibiotic resistance is a major public health concern and that antibiotic use in livestock contributes to the problem.

Don’t just take our word for it. The CDC has said that there is “strong scientific evidence of a link between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.” There is a remarkable level of agreement on the need to stop the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on animals, i.e. use of antibiotics on animals that are not sick and don’t need them. An alphabet soup of medical, public health, and scientific groups including the AMA, AAP, IDSA, APHA, and ASM (that’s American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Infectious Diseases Society of America, American Public Health Association, and the American Society for Microbiology) all agree that to protect public health such use must stop.

Florida_chicken_house.jpgBut in a cleverly orchestrated bit of theater, the Senate committee with authority over antibiotics in animals held a hearing titled  “Animal Drug User Fee Agreements: Advancing Animal Health for the Public Health” – without hearing from one single public health witness. The unbalanced panel of witnesses represented only the government agency that has dragged its feet on the issue of antibiotic use in livestock for more than 35 years and the animal drug industry that benefits from the inaction. They heralded the benefits of antibiotics for animal use without addressing the development of antibiotic resistance due to misuse of antibiotics in animals.

The bill they would like to keep “clean” deals with the fees that drug companies pay to get their animal drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration. They want it to pass without any public discussion about the critical health issue that is the responsibility of the committee.

Why all this talk about a “clean” bill? As it turns out, the committee is trying to keep any Senators from picking up on the idea that, to better understand the trends in antibiotic resistance and to track how well efforts to stop this problem are working, we need to improve the data that the government collects on antibiotics that are used in animal agriculture. A broad coalition of medical, public health, scientific, agricultural, consumer, environmental, humane, and other organizations, representing more than 11 million supporters, has called for these improvements. And Representative Henry Waxman has asked for this kind of reporting in the DATA Act (The Delivering Antibiotic Transparency in Animals Act), which he introduced in the House just prior to this Senate hearing.

This is a small, common sense step towards better regulation of antibiotics in livestock to ensure that they are not being abused and thus putting the public health at risk. However, by continuously calling for a “clean bill,” the committee is trying to discourage any Senator from trying to replicate Congressman Waxman’s work.

In fact, Senator Harkin is reported by CQ Roll Call as saying after the hearing, “There are those who might want to address issues of antibiotics on this bill. This is not the place for it. That’s why we left that off of this….That could really gum up the works if that were attempted.”

But if the Committee won’t talk about the critical problem of antibiotics in livestock at a hearing addressing animal drugs and the public health and in reference to a bill about animal drugs, then when will it talk about it? True, the House Republicans have a terrible record on protecting public health and the environment, but Senator Harkin should pick up this good idea from his House colleague.

Senators, have the guts to talk about how to stop the overuse of antibiotics in livestock and protect the medicines that we rely on to get our kids healthy. Let’s “dirty” up this bill and stop industry from abusing these drugs and undermining the efficacy of our antibiotics.

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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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