December 15, 2013
Last week’s page 4 news from Washington demonstrated the vast influence of the Thornapple blog on the nation’s elite decision makers. Just six weeks after blogging on the problems associated with the sub-therpeutic use of antibiotics in meat production, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (that’s FDA to the policy geeks among my readership) announced a new plan to combat this scourge. As reported by Dan Charles on National Public Radio (you wouldn’t think that I’d do any of my own research, would you?) the FDA will ask drug companies to “de-list” the sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics from their labels. If you recall, small amounts of antibiotic drugs are routinely added to animal feed—amounts too small to be effective against a microbial infection. What they do—and the science is pretty unequivocal about this—is to make the animals grow faster. If you’re talking aggie geek speak, they help producers make more efficient use of feed.
There’s a whole rap that any self-respecting aggie geek speaker can recite about how this promotes sustainability because we don’t need so many acres dedicated to feed production, and how that reduces the gasoline and diesel fuel (not to mention the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer) that we use in planting those acres. And since the carbon released from using all those fossil fuels isn’t released into the atmosphere where it causes global warming, using all these antibiotics is actually a form of environmental stewardship! But frankly, that’s just a tangent from the perspective of this week’s blog. So having fulfilled my contractual obligation to point out at least one tangent every week, I go back to the FDA.
Dan Charles explains that FDA has decided not to issue a regulation here. That would be slow and clumsy. Instead they are just asking the drug companies to voluntarily remove “feed additive” from the list of approved uses. It’s not entirely clear what effect this will have. It does mean that when a veterinarian looks up the drug, she won’t find “stick this in the feed trough” as one of the recommended uses. It may also have the effect of making it difficult to access these antibiotics without a veterinarian’s prescription. But unless I am even more poorly informed than I think, veterinarians will still have the legal authority to write scripts for anything that they personally and on their own recognizance believe to be medically legitimate. So in one sense, it all hangs on what the vets themselves think about this antibiotic resistance thing.
Or maybe not quite all of it hangs that way. There are also the producers. About a decade ago I participated in a study with Alex MacIntosh and Wesley Dean of Texas A&M. Alex and Wes did a survey of veterinarians and beef producers, and what they found in a nutshell is that both vets and producers would be more than willing to give up sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in feed. They were resisting regulation because they feared they would lose their ability to use antibiotics to treat sick animals—and they viewed this as a matter of ethics. They felt a moral obligation to treat sick animals. But for feed additive use, the only thing they were concerned about is whether or not they guy down the road would have a competitive advantage. In other words, if everyone plays by the same rules, then giving up on sub-therapeutic use in feeds is not a big deal,(that aggie geek speak sustainability argument notwithstanding).
So will this FDA voluntary action accomplish that? Well folks, that is the $60,000 food ethics question for Dec. 15, 2013. We will have to wait to find out.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University