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Where's the Beef?

Fri, Jan 18, 2013 | Peter Pitts

From the pages of Food Safety News:

Common Ground Exists in Drug Resistance Debate: Response to Pew Op-Ed

To some, the ongoing debate over the use of antibiotics in animals raised for food is like the sign post in the Wizard of Oz — pointing in opposite directions. But from reading “Antibiotics in Food Animal Production: Pew’s Response to Raymond Op-Ed,” Jan.11, there is violent agreement between PEW and the animal health industry.

Gail Hansen writes that Pew “opposes the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, but strongly supports their use to treat sick animals.” That’s radically similar to the position the animal health industry has taken on FDA’s timely and thoughtful effort to phase out growth promotion claims on medically important antibiotics and phase in veterinary oversight of these compounds.  This policy harmonizes antibiotics use in animals and humans and eliminates the use of antibiotics as growth promoters, similar to the European ban on antibiotic growth promoters.

FDA’s action ensures that medicines will now be used in animal health much the same way as they are used by humans – administered only to address disease and under the direction of a licensed medical professional.  This policy is the net result of what a number of public health advocacy groups, including Pew, called for in a 2009 letter to the White House.

On the issue of the amount of antibiotics used in animals, Hansen also acknowledges something the animal health industry has pointed out:  about 40 percent of the total compounds used in animal agriculture aren’t used in human medicine and don’t figure into the debate over antibiotic resistance. The focus on the amount used in animals vs. humans, according to Dr. Raymond, is a “distraction from the real truth.” I agree.

While the Danish ban on growth promoters – known as the Danish Experiment –has reduced some instances of resistance in animals, reductions and changes in use of antibiotics in animals have had no effect on rates of antibiotic resistance in humans. For example, after certain antibiotics in animal feed were banned in Denmark, a 2011 GAO Report stated, “Danish officials told us that Denmark’s resistance data have not shown a decrease in antibiotic resistance in humans after implementation of the various Danish policies, except for a few limited examples.”  Again, this appears to be another area where the animal health industry, Hansen and the GAO all agree. Wonderful!

Fact: Simply banning uses of antibiotics used to keep food animals healthy does not address the unrelated problem of antibiotic resistance in humans, but will certainly add to animal disease and suffering. The issue of antibiotic resistance is one that is both important and scientifically complex, and reliance on simplistic solutions will not solve the problem and may make it worse.

It does matter which direction we go and how we get there. I look forward to contributing to this importance discussion on the nexus between human and animal health.

Peter J. Pitts, a former FDA Associate Commissioner, is President of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a member of the Animal Health Institute’s Board of Scientific Advisors