New Rules Will Shed Dim Light On Antibiotics Overuse In Farm Animals

Image courtesy of Kevin Cardosi

Even though three-quarters of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on farm animals, there is very little information available about how much of which drugs are being fed to cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys. Newly finalized rules hope to provide more details on how these drugs are being used, but critics say the new data is only a small part of the bigger picture.

Every year, drug makers are required to report their total sales of antibiotics intended for use in farm animals, which is how we know that recent voluntary restrictions put in place by the FDA have not resulted in any decrease in sales for these drugs.

In 2015, the FDA announced it would revise these reporting rules to include species-specific sales data, with the hope that knowing this information might help regulators have a better idea on how to actually reduce antibiotics overuse.

The FDA has now finalized that rule change [PDF], and while critics of antibiotics overuse say the new reporting requirements won’t do any harm, they also question whether they will ultimately provide the precise information needed to guide industry reform.

The primary concern is that the information reported only comes from the drug makers, who don’t have detailed data on what actually happens to their drugs once they are purchased. Many livestock antibiotics can be purchased legally, without any sort of prescription, online or at farm supply stores, so only the farmers can provide the information that FDA and other stakeholders seek.

Steve Roach, of Food Animal Concerns Trust and Keep Antibiotics Working, says that while drug industry estimates of species-specific sales are “better than nothing,” they “fall far short of what is needed to adequately monitor FDA’s efforts to combat antibiotic resistance.”

That sentiment is echoed by Avinash Kar of the Natural Resources Defense Council, whose concerns about the rules haven’t changed since they were proposed last year.

“This is a modest improvement over FDA’s current reporting requirements,” Kar tells Consumerist, “but we need more and better data on on-farm use of antibiotics.”

He explains that it’s not just the amount of drugs used that we need to understand, but data on the purpose for using these drugs. The 2013 FDA guidance called on drug makers to stop selling these drugs for growth promotion, but almost all of the antibiotics marketed for that purpose were also approved for medical treatments. It’s believed that many farmers are still providing the same amount of antibiotics to their animals, but have shifted the justification from growth-promotion to the vague “disease prevention.”