The Obama administration on June 2 convened the White House Forum on Antibiotic Stewardship, “to bring together key human and animal health constituencies involved in antibiotic stewardship.” The White House billed this meeting—to which more than 150 companies were invited—as furthering previous steps on antibiotic “stewardship” including the administration’s veterinary feed directive. While the meeting’s agenda was broader than just veterinary antibiotic use in livestock production, the tangible actions coming out of it were all targeted at livestock and meat.
The veterinary feed directive was an edict from the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees animal and livestock feed. It was issued in December 2013 and finalized in conjunction with the White House Summit. Its goal is to phase out the use of medically important antibiotics in livestock production by 2016. Indeed, curbing the sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock feed has been a cause celebre for the administration and the food nanny crowd for decades.
The New York Times describes adding antibiotics to feed as a “practice that experts say has endangered human health by fueling the growing epidemic of antibiotic resistance.” Those experts were not identified, and those who hold a different point of view were, as the Times characterized it, part of “the powerful food industry and its substantial lobbying power in Congress.” Suffice it to say, the topic is a vastly complicated issue of microbiology and is not as simple as meat industry critics contend.
Indeed, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have concluded that the most acute problem is “poor antimicrobial stewardship among humans.” The most resistant organisms found in hospitals originate in the hospitals themselves, according to the CDC’s director, Dr. Tom Frieden. Also, people who don’t complete their full prescription of antibiotics add to microbial resistance.
In reality, the vast majority of antibiotics used by livestock are not those used in human medicines, and the veterinary antibiotics which are used in livestock production are strictly regulated by the FDA, are subject to strict withdrawal periods prior to slaughter, and, moreover, undergo exacting residue monitoring of the meat derived from livestock and poultry that were administered antibiotics. Regarding livestock production, the CDC’s Dr. Frieden has said, “we continue to promote the concept that if an animal is sick using antibiotics to treat that animal is obviously important. We want to increase the rational use of antibiotics.”
The livestock, meat, feed, and veterinary industries have voluntarily complied with the administration’s veterinary feed directive since the beginning, in order to do their part for health, safety, and, frankly, to meet a growing consumer demand driven by the constant discussion of the issue in the press and popular culture. So much so, that FDA issued a press release in March 2014, four months after the initial voluntary directive was issued, stating they were “encouraged by the strong response” from the industry.
The White House event marked the release of the final version of the directive. It noted that all 25 veterinary drug companies have committed to implement the new practices, which prohibit medically important antibiotics being used for production purposes, and will require animal producers to obtain authorization from a licensed veterinarian to use them for prevention, control or treatment of a specifically identified disease. The president could have declared victory for his initiative, and sat back to enjoy the plaudits of being a consensus builder on this controversial issue. Rather, he took the opportunity to stir more controversy.