FDA Fighting The Antibiotic Backlash In U.S. Meat

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This week, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a voluntary program to help reduce the use of antibiotics in animals raised for their meat. As the use of these drugs has increased, so has the incidence of drug-resistant bacteria. So the FDA is concerned about the public health impact of the use of these antibiotics. Arun Rath speaks with Maryn McKenna about the plan, and how it might work. McKenna writes for Wired Magazine and is the author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA.


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

This past week, the Food and Drug Administration announced a plan to reduce the number of antibiotics used in meat production. Farmers and meat producers use a large quantity of the drugs, not just to help sick animals, but to help livestock grow more quickly. The FDA is concerned that meat producers have gone too far with the antibiotics and that this overuse has helped create drug-resistant bacteria.

Maryn McKenna writes for Wired and is the author of the book "Superbug." She says that drug resistance is not just a problem for animals. It's a significant issue for humans.

MARYN MCKENNA: Antibiotic-resistant bacteria develop in those animals, move off the farm either in the meat that the animals become or in manure that's sprayed on fields or leaking into groundwater, and that antibiotic resistance travels to humans and really imperils human health.

RATH: And how does it imperil human health?

MCKENNA: So there's really good scientific literature now - and when I saw really good, I mean literally hundreds of studies - that shows that antibiotic-resistant bacteria that have a genetic signature that identifies it as coming from farms is causing illnesses in humans. And this can be anything from just common urinary tract infections to really serious infections such as pneumonia or infections of the blood or infections of the bone.

Some of these diseases don't appear to have anything directly to do with food because they're not what we think of as traditional food-borne illnesses. But they can be really devastating and, in some cases, deadly.

RATH: So what exactly does the FDA plan to do to get this under control?

MCKENNA: How much it's going to do depends on who you talk to, but here's what the FDA said they wanted. They proposed a voluntary guideline in which the makers of animal drugs would change the labeling on their drugs so that the drugs are no longer indicated to be approved for growth promoter use. That means that anyone who continued to use them that way would essentially be using them in an off-label way.

They also - they, the FDA - also said from now going forward, they want veterinarians to be involved in whether antibiotics are prescribed for animals on farms. Before this, farmers or meat production companies could just buy the drugs and administer them without the involvement of a veterinarian. But again, it's voluntary. It's not legislation. It's not regulation. It's not what was done in Europe back in 2005 and 2006 when they just banned growth promoters from use at all.

RATH: Well, given all those complications that you've tracked and you've also observed how this has worked in Europe, how significant do you think this move is by the FDA?

MCKENNA: I think it's both very significant and really questionable. And the very significant part is that it happened at all. The FDA first said that they wanted to control antibiotic use in agriculture back in 1977. For 36 years, they were not successful in actually bringing new scrutiny to the use of these drugs. That they finally did something, even though it's a different and voluntary path, that I think is really important.

The question that remains is, how much difference is it actually going to make? And I think we won't know that for a while.

RATH: That's Maryn McKenna. She's the author most recently of "Superbug." Maryn, thank you so much.

MCKENNA: Oh, thanks for having me.

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