Not the first time, sadly.
A casual reader taking in my account and the New York Times’ account of yesterday’s big FDA antibiotics announcement might have thought we were reacting to different events. Here’s the Times lead:
Farmers and ranchers will for the first time need a prescription from a veterinarian before using antibiotics in farm animals, in hopes that more judicious use of the drugs will reduce the tens of thousands of human deaths that result each year from the drugs’ overuse.
In the Times’ reading, the FDA placed significant restrictions on antibiotics use. My take was more critical: “The plan contains a bull-size loophole—and is purely voluntary, to boot.”
What gives? In short, the Times delivered a skim-level, FDA-friendly account of the new plan. Let’s start with the loophole. Here’s the Times:
Michael Taylor, the F.D.A.’s deputy commissioner for food, predicted that the new restrictions would save lives because farmers would have to convince a veterinarian that their animals were either sick or at risk of getting a specific illness. [Emphasis added.]
The bolded part is the key. As I reported yesterday, the FDA plan intends to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters, but allows them to continue to be used to “prevent” disease. That’s a major loophole—it means that farmers can continue stuffing animals together in filthy conditions and dosing them with antibiotics to keep them alive. Margaret Mellon, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a longtime watchdog of the meat industry’s antibiotic-gorging ways, put it like this in a Wednesday press release:
The outlined process appears to give the companies the opportunity to relabel drugs currently slated for growth promotion for disease prevention instead. Such relabeling could allow them to sell the exact same drugs in the very same amounts
None of this comes out in the Times story.
(click here to continue reading How the NY Times Got It Wrong on the FDA’s New Antibiotics Rules | Mother Jones.)
Margaret Mellon responds, angrily:
FDA to Establish Voluntary, Largely Secret Program to Reduce Antibiotic Overuse in Agriculture Statement by Margaret Mellon, Senior Scientist
WASHINGTON (April 11, 2012)—The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today released three documents that constitute its long-awaited response to the problem of antibiotic overuse in agriculture. There is wide recognition among scientists that such antibiotic use is driving up the rate of antibiotic-resistant diseases, which are becoming increasingly severe and more costly to treat. While the documents establish a new, completely voluntary approach to reducing antibiotic use in agriculture, the Union of Concerned Scientists cautioned that the program’s shortfalls are likely to imperil its success.
Below is a statement by Margaret Mellon, senior scientist at UCS.
“The approach announced represents a bold, well-intentioned attempt by the FDA to persuade an entire industry to voluntarily abandon claims that allow them to sell a large number of lucrative products. The agency should be congratulated for finally taking action on a serious and long-neglected public health issue, but we’re deeply skeptical that the approach will work.
“We have no reason to believe that the veterinary pharmaceutical industry—which, to date, has rarely even acknowledged that antibiotic resistance is a serious public health issue—will cooperate with the agency on a plan that could reduce its profits.
“The outlined process appears to give the companies the opportunity to relabel drugs currently slated for growth promotion for disease prevention instead. Such relabeling could allow them to sell the exact same drugs in the very same amounts. The process also allows companies to avoid risk assessments for new drug approvals.
“Unfortunately, the process will also be secret. Companies will have three months to submit voluntary plans and three years to implement them. During this entire time, the public will be kept in the dark. It could be three to four years before anyone knows how well the program is working.
“Ultimately, if antibiotic use is reduced only marginally or not at all much time and taxpayer dollars will have been wasted.
“The agency doesn’t need to embark on this novel but very risky experiment in relying on companies to police their own products. It has – and should have relied upon – its authority under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to cancel unsafe uses of drugs.”
(click here to continue reading FDA to Establish Voluntary, Largely Secret Program to Reduce Antibiotic Overuse in Agriculture | Union of Concerned Scientists.)