Opinion

''The Threat From Antibiotic Use on the Farm''


By Donald Kennedy

Donald Kennedy was commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from 1977 to 1979. He is professor emeritus of environmental science at Stanford University.

When I was commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency’s national advisory committee recommended in 1977 that we eliminate an agricultural practice that threatened human health. Routinely feeding low doses of antibiotics to healthy livestock, our scientific advisory committee warned, was breeding drug-resistant bacteria that could infect people. We scheduled hearings to begin the process of curtailing the use of penicillin and other antibiotics for this purpose, but Congress halted the effort before it started.

Today, the science is even clearer that antibiotic overuse in agriculture is dangerous — yet the same risks persist. Fortunately, the FDA appears poised to act by instituting a measure known as Guidance 213. This voluntary policy instructs pharmaceutical companies to stop marketing certain antibiotics for animal production purposes. Some public health advocates want the agency to make the restrictions mandatory, but voluntary guidance can work — if it is finalized. The agency issued a draft version of its policy in April 2012 and received public comments, as required, but the comment period closed about a year ago. Drugmakers have been left awaiting further instruction.

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A far better solution would be to improve the crowding and poor sanitation that make food animals susceptible to disease in the first place. Action by the FDA would be the initial step to encourage companies to make such changes and stop relying on massive overuse of antibiotics.

The FDA should finalize Guidance 213, tell the public how data will be collected to ensure that its voluntary strategy is working and then, if antibiotic misuse continues unabated, apply the full force of regulation. It has been 36 years since the agency moved to restrict injudicious antibiotic practices that threatened the public’s health. It should not wait any longer to finish the job.

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