By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Antibiotic-resistant diseases are depriving Americans of good health every year, with 23,000 people dying from diseases that were untreatable because antibiotics failed to work.

This week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sprang into action – 30 or so years into this growing problem — to take aim at a major culprit, perhaps the major culprit, the livestock producers who routinely administer antibiotics to make animals (i.e., profits) grow faster and larger.

The agency issued guidance to livestock producers, asking them to voluntarily quit using antibiotics as a daily treatment for animals, which causes the bacteria to develop resistance to the drugs. Instead, the livestock industry should only use antibiotics to treat illness in the animals it raises for slaughter, or so the FDA is asking.

“We need to be selective about the drugs we use in animals and when we use them,” says William Flynn, DVM, MS, deputy director for science policy at FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM). “Antimicrobial resistance may not be completely preventable, but we need to do what we can to slow it down.”

Here’s the problem: The new rules, aren’t even rules. They’re policy suggestions. This is voluntary.

New York Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter, a microbiologist and longtime advocate for stricter actual, enforceable rules for antibiotic use in animals, was quick to note this major failing in the FDA’s plan.

“The FDA’s voluntary guidance is an inadequate response to the overuse of antibiotics on the farm with no mechanism for enforcement and no metric for success,” Rep. Slaughter. “Sadly, this guidance is the biggest step the FDA has taken in a generation to combat the overuse of antibiotics in corporate agriculture, and it falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.”

Slaughter has proposed mandatory regulation that would forbid livestock operations from using eight classes of antibiotics except to treat sick animals, and people.

The very existence of Slaughter’s legislation – the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) – may even be what pushed the FDA off the sidelines, maneuvering to find an answer to the problem more palatable to industry. Of course, that’s speculation.

PAMTA, which has the support of 450 medical and consumer advocate groups, according to Slaughter’s office, may still have legs.

But it will take consumer outrage over needless human illnesses and deaths to push it along.

Slaughter reports that so far this year groups opposing PAMTA have spent $17 million trying to stop it. Similar voluntary guidelines in Europe also failed to stop the overuse of antibiotics, her office reported. Only in the Netherlands, where the rules had penalties, was the routine use of antibiotics curbed.

From the livestock producer’s point of view, where every pound of flesh carries an additional dollar or two in profits, that makes sense. Stop rules that interfere with making chickens, pigs and cattle weigh as much as possible.

The FDA’s weak position also makes sense. The agency says the new guidelines need to be voluntary so they can be put in place faster and easier (read: industry wouldn’t cooperate with serious regulation). It maintains that the pharmaceutical companies making these drugs are on its side and will re-label them for use only for illnesses.

But for the rest of us, this half-measure does not make sense. With 23,000 people dying, who otherwise wouldn’t have (that’s from the Centers for Disease Control), and millions more suffering with illnesses complicated by antibiotic resistance, it’s abundantly clear that our interest lay with the medical professionals supporting PAMTA and would like to see antibiotics preserved to treat illnesses.

Check to see where your Congressional representatives stand on PAMTA.

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