Sales Of Antibiotics For Farm Animals Continues To Increase, Despite FDA Guidance

Image courtesy of Mike Matney

Three years ago, the Food and Drug Administration — in response to growing concerns about the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria — issued long-delayed guidance to the pharmaceuticals industry, asking drugmakers to voluntarily stop selling antibiotics to farmers solely for the purpose of growth-promotion in cows, pigs, and chicken. And while sales of these drugs have indeed slowed, the latest FDA report shows that they are still on the rise.

In its Annual Summary report [PDF2015-annual-summary] covering sales of antibiotics for use in food-producing animals, the FDA notes that in 2015, sales of these drugs increased overall by 1% from the previous year. More importantly, drugs deemed medically important to humans — those antibiotics that we need to remain effective so that we can continue to treat human patients — increased by 2% during this time.

Nearly all (95%) of these medically important drugs were put into animal feed or water — as opposed to being provided individually to animals through injections or orally. Additionally, while we humans must stand in line with our prescriptions for these vital antibiotics, 97% of the same drugs sold for use in farm animals were purchased over the counter.

Critics of antibiotic overuse, like the Natural Resources Defense Council, contend that these are indications that the drugs are still being used primarily for growth-promotion, regardless of whether or not the drug companies market them for that use.

Some changes are in the immediate offing for the use of antibiotics in farm animals. Starting Jan. 1, 2017, medically important antibiotics will no longer be available as over-the-counter purchases, but must be purchased with a veterinary feed directive or a prescription. The labels of these drugs can also no longer include “production indications,” meaning they can’t reference the growth-promotion effects of the antibiotics.

However, critics maintain that these changes will still allow for farmers to simply shift their stated reason for using the drugs from “growth promotion” to “disease prevention,” even though it’s believed that continual, low-dose use of antibiotics only contributes to the development of drug-resistant bacteria that sicken millions of Americans each year, and kill more than 20,000 annually according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“While livestock antibiotics will no longer carry a label that says they can be used for growth promotion, many of these same products will continue to be approved for routine use in the same manner and similar dosages for the purpose of disease prevention,” writes NRDC’s David Wallinga.

The FDA acknowledges some of the shortcomings of the data in its Annual Summary. For example, the report has sales figures, but not usage figures, meaning the agency can’t say for certain that all of the purchased antibiotics are indeed being used.

Similarly, while the FDA has breakdowns on the various types of antibiotics, it doesn’t yet have data on which animals are getting which drugs. However, the FDA will have that information when it releases 2016 antibiotics data a year from now, so it should help provide additional context about the use of antibiotics in farm animals, which accounts for around three-quarters of all antibiotics sold in the U.S.

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