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Center for a Livable Future


December 11, 2013

FDA’s Voluntary Guidelines on Antibiotics Fail to Protect Public Health

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today finalized voluntary guidelines on antibiotic use in food animal production, but according to food production experts at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), the guidelines will likely fail to change how these drugs are used in food animals and will not stem the public health crisis of increasing antibiotic resistance. Decades of scientific research including studies led by CLF researchers have linked the misuse of antibiotics in food animals to rising antibiotic resistance in human pathogens.
Guidance for Industry #213, the FDA document which outlines the new guidelines, asks drug companies to voluntarily withdraw approvals to use antibiotics in food animals for “growth promotion” while keeping approvals to use these drugs for “disease prevention.” In both cases, antibiotics are fed to animals at low doses, often throughout their lives making bacteria resistant to drugs used to treat infections.
“Problems can arise whenever antibiotics are fed to animals at low doses for long periods of time,” said Keeve Nachman, PhD, MHS, a CLF scientist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department’s of Environmental Health Sciences and Health Policy and Management. “Whether you call it growth promotion or disease prevention, this makes antibiotics less effective for treating sick people.”
Many antibiotics are approved for both growth promotion and disease prevention at similarly low doses and without limits on how long they may be used. This means that even if all growth promotion approvals were withdrawn voluntarily, many antibiotics could still be used in similar ways. Under the guidelines, drug companies and the food animal industry could call such use “disease prevention” instead.
“The FDA may care whether companies call it growth promotion or disease prevention, but the bacteria do not,” said Nachman. “If antibiotics are used in the same ways, they will have the same effects.”
“The widespread misuse of antibiotics in food animal production reduces the effectiveness of drugs we heavily rely on to keep the public and our families safe,” said Robert Lawrence, MD, director of CLF and a professor with the Bloomberg School’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences. “An infection that is now considered relatively easy to treat could once again prove fatal should antibiotics continue to be misused in food animal production and exacerbate this growing public health crisis.”
“The agency needs to change how antibiotics are used, but these guidelines will only change how they are labeled. Instead of issuing voluntary guidelines, the FDA should use its regulatory authority to protect public health by withdrawing all approvals to use antibiotics for disease prevention and growth promotion,” adds Nachman.