The New York Times reports on yesterday’s House Committee on Rules hearing on "H.R. 1549 – Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009." In today’s article, titled, “Administration Seeks to Restrict Antibiotics in Livestock,” the Times refers to testimony by FDA Deputy Commissioner, Joshua M. Sharfstein, M.D. 

In his testimony, (pdf) Dr. Sharfstein explained that antimicrobial resistance has emerged as a threat to public health for multiple reasons, including:

  • Physicians prescribing antimicrobials too frequently or inappropriately
  • Patients failing to complete a prescribed course of antimicrobial, making it more likely that surviving microbes will develop resistance
  • Antimicrobial use in animals
  • Nontherapeutic use of antimicrobial drugs of human importance in food-producing animals

In his written testimony, Dr. Sharfstein stated:

To avoid unnecessary development of resistance under conditions of constant exposure (growth promotion/feed efficiency) to antibiotics, the use of antimicrobials should be limited to those situations where human and animal health are protected. Purposes other than for the advances of animal or human health should not be considered judicious use. Eliminating these uses will not compromise the safety of food.

In short, Dr. Sharfstein advocated for the discontinuation of the use of administering antibiotics to otherwise healthy food animals for the sole purpose of generating growth or promoting feed efficiency. 

To further Dr. Sharfstein’s point, in his testimony (pdf) before the House Committee, Robert P. Martin, Senior Officer of The Pew Environment Group, presented the findings of The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, an independent commission funded by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts Health to investigate the problems associated with industrial farm animal production. Mr. Martin stated:

antibiotic resistant bacteria in food animalsThe Commission released its full report on April 29, 2008, that included 24 primary recommendations. The Commission was so concerned about the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in food animal production, and the potential threat to public health, that five of those recommendations deal with antibiotic use. The top two public health recommendations call for the end on the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food animal production and set strict definitions for their use.

The top recommendation, submitted in Mr. Martin’s written testimony, is to testrict the use of antimicrobials in food animal production to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to medically important antibiotics. According to the Commission, this can be achieved by:

  1. Phasing out and banning the use of antimicrobials for non-therapeutic (i.e. growth promoting) use in food animals
  2. Immediately banning any new approvals of antimicrobials for non-therapeutic uses in food animals and retroactively investigating antimicrobials previously approved.
  3. Strengthening recommendations in FDA Guidance #152 which requires the FDA determine that the drug is safe and effective for its intended use in the animal prior to approving an antimicrobial for a new animal drug application.
  4. Facilitating the reduction in industrial farm animal production use of antibiotics and educating producers on how to raise food animals without using non-therapeutic antibiotics, the USDA’s extension service should be tasked to create and expand programs that teach producers the husbandry methods and best practices necessary to maintain the high level of efficiency and productivity they enjoy today.

H.R. 1549, which is supported by the American Medical Association and other public health-related organizations, is opposed by the National Pork Producers Council and other farm organizations. 

According to the Times article, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that up to 70 percent of antibiotics used in the United States is given to healthy animals used in food production (chickens, pigs, cattle) to promote growth or prevent illness. 

All testimony from yesterday’s hearing can be found on the Committee on Rules website.