Antibiotics under greater scrutiny

by Jay Sjerven
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Applegate Farms made using meat from animals raised without antibiotics part of their approach to business.

A White House interagency task force on March 27 released a plan that identified actions to be taken by federal departments and agencies during the next five years to address the rising incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a growing threat to both human and animal health. Of particular interest to the food industry was The National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria report’s goals related to the use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry operations.

The plan said that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug-resistant bacteria cause 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses each year in the United States. The task force said urgent steps across several fronts must be taken to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This will require the collaboration of health care providers and leaders, drug manufacturers, policymakers and patients, as well as farmers and ranchers, veterinarians and agriculture and food industry leaders.

With regard to the food industry, the task force report said a principal goal was to “eliminate the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in food-producing animals and bring other agricultural uses of antibiotics — for
treatment, control and prevention of disease — under veterinary oversight.”

The Food and Drug Administration’s current views on ensuring judicious use of medically important antibiotics in agriculture were communicated to industry in two guidance documents. Guidance 209, published in 2012, outlined the F.D.A.’s position that growth promotion claims on medically important antibiotics should be phased out, and veterinary oversight of the use of these compounds should be phased in. Guidance 213, published in December 2013, outlined how a drug sponsor or company may withdraw growth claims from the label of products containing medically important antibiotics and indicated elimination of such claims should occur within three years.

The task force report strengthened the approach. Within one year, manufacturers would be required to change the dispensing status of in-feed antibiotics veterinary feed directive status, which would require approval from a veterinarian.

The task force added within three years, the F.D.A., in partnership with animal drug sponsors, will complete all changes recommended by guidance documents 209 and 213.

“Once these changes are complete, growth promotion uses of medically important antibiotics will no longer be permitted, and the use of medically important antibiotics in feed or water of food-producing animals will require veterinary oversight,” the task force said.

The meat and poultry industries have come to support the F.D.A. decision on phasing out antibiotics for animal growth promotion and the agency’s efforts to increase veterinary oversight of antibiotic use, and several major food retailers and restaurateurs have responded to consumer concerns about antibiotic resistance. Recently, McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A as well as Costco announced they would eliminate chicken raised with medically important antibiotics from their supply chains. Earlier, Chipotle, Panera and Applegate Farms made using meat from animals raised without antibiotics part of their approach to business.

Speaking before the Consumer Analyst Group of Europe in London on March 18, Dennis Leatherby, executive vice-president and chief financial officer, Tyson Foods, Inc., Springdale, Ark., said, “It is our philosophy to use antibiotics judiciously, and since last year, we stopped using antibiotics at all 35 of our hatchery operations.”

Mr. Leatherby added Tyson reduced the use of medically important antibiotics on its poultry farms by 84% from 2011 to 2014.

“In short, we only use antibiotics as prescribed or approved by the F.D.A. and only when prescribed by a veterinarian to treat and prevent disease in animals,” he said.

The task force report had critics.

“Antibiotics were never meant for prevention of disease,” said Representative Louise M. Slaughter of New York. “They were meant for treatment of disease. Using them at sub-therapeutic levels for prevention has just made bacteria stronger and is rendering antibiotics ineffective.”

David Acheson, principal of The Acheson Group, advised the food industry to watch developments related to antibiotic use in agriculture carefully.

“It is politically hot, and consumer awareness is high, which starts to create a perfect storm for trouble,” Mr. Acheson said. “If you don’t have a clear policy on antibiotic use and a clear answer to the question, ‘How are you looking to reduce antibiotic use in meat and poultry production?’, you may get into trouble fast — so my recommendation would be to build that strategy as soon as possible.”

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