Pressure builds for limits on antibiotics
Debate continues over resistance; changes in Congress may derail push
By TIM HEARDEN
Livestock producers continue to dodge bullets in the form of efforts to curb their use of antibiotics in farm animals.
Legislation by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., languished along with other issues this year as lawmakers focused on the Nov. 2 elections.
With a change in Congress, it is unclear whether Slaughter's proposal to restrict the use of seven types of antibiotics she views as critical to human health will see movement.
"Our concerns have always been that this is a legislative effort to circumvent a regulatory process that has been science-based," said Kristina Butts, executive director of legislative affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "It's a really scary precedent when members of Congress legislate what products we can and can't use when it's not being based on science."
Slaughter's bill isn't the latest effort -- either legislatively or otherwise -- to force producers into curtailing their reliance on antibiotics, which are used to prevent diseases and promote growth in livestock.
A comment period ended in August for a U.S. Food and Drug Administration "draft guidance" that asserts the use of antibiotics to enhance growth or feed efficiency in animals is "injudicious" and contributes to increasing resistance to antibiotics in humans.
The FDA also proposes that antibiotics only be given under a veterinarian's guidance. The agency plans to "work with" drug makers, veterinarians and livestock producers to develop "phased-in measures" of making sure the drugs are given only when it's "necessary to ensure animal health," according to the document, titled "The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals."
Butts hopes the new Congress will rein in any federal attempts to restrict the use of antibiotics in animals.
"Last week the Republicans in the House laid out a new type of strategy agenda with a real focus and emphasis on oversight, which is something we personally ... think Congress has not enough of," Butts said before the election.
"We want the committees to focus on their oversight jurisdiction on the agencies -- the EPA, the FDA, the USDA," she said. "I think you will see more involvement in rolling some of these (regulations) back or just bringing the politicals in place at the agencies to talk to Congress ... more about what they're doing at the agencies."
Meanwhile, media reports on the issue have heightened public awareness. Recently a pair of researchers found that news stories on antibiotics and other animal welfare-related issues have resulted in "significant, negative effects" on U.S. meat demand.
Farm groups are working to engage in the public relations battle -- not only with consumers but with lawmakers. The NCBA's Beef 101 campaign to educate members of Congress and their staffs includes antibiotics technologies used in the beef industry, Butts said.
As long as consumers think antibiotics are being overused by livestock producers, policy problems will continue, said Kelli Ludlum, the American Farm Bureau Federation's director of congressional relations.
"For the most part, the media has not been terribly interested in looking at the science of the issue," Ludlum said. "They've been interested in looking at the compelling story, which is antibiotic resistance in human medicine and health."
She believes the media miss the larger point.
"It's much easier to look at livestock as a target than it is to look at pediatrics or other types of medicine," she said. "Overprescription is a problem, and from a public perception standpoint it's a harder problem to solve than with livestock, with which most people are not as familiar."
Such media coverage has fed an ongoing political debate over the perceived human health problems caused by the use of antibiotics in livestock, even though no one knows for sure the extent to which the two are linked.
In interviews with the Capital Press earlier this year, even scientists who would abolish the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals conceded that people are mainly to blame for an overuse of the drugs that researchers say caused 65,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2008.
However, many scientists -- including those in ag circles -- said they suspect that use of the drugs in livestock contributes to the resistance problem.
Introduced in 2009, Slaughter's measure would restrict the use of most antibiotics to treating illnesses rather than preventing them. Similar legislation is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Slaughter, a microbiologist and chairwoman of the House Rules Committee, argued that numerous studies have shown the overuse of antibiotics can increase resistance in humans.
This fall, however, Slaughter and Feinstein voiced concerns over statements that U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reportedly made to the NCBA.
According to CattleNetwork, Vilsack said the "vast majority of producers do not abuse the use of antibiotics in livestock production" and that banning their use "doesn't make sense."
But Butts is convinced that more attempts to make changes are coming.
"Our bigger message continues to be that we get really nervous when a federal agency starts making policy changes when they don't have the science to support their position," she said.
FDA draft guidance on antibiotics in livestock: www.fda.gov/downloads/AnimalVeterinary/GuidanceComplianceEnforcement/GuidanceforIndustry/UCM216936.pdf
Rep. Louise Slaughter: www.louise.house.gov/
Sen. Dianne Feinstein: http://feinstein.senate.gov/public