How the NYT Got It Wrong on the FDA’s New Antibiotics Rules

Wherever I Lay My Head
Wherever I Lay My Head

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.)

Critical Mass Griller
Critical Mass Griller

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.)

4 thoughts on “How the NYT Got It Wrong on the FDA’s New Antibiotics Rules

  1. John Cutting says:

    I appreciate the depth and diligence of this report. Wow, I know, huh. …We human beings are really in the muck on this treatment of our livestock thing. It’s nothing to be proud of. Not to mention, the ruination of the soil upon which we keep our muddy livestock. And not to mention the amounts of water they consume to yield a pound of beef, plus the amounts of green house gases their life cycle produces in pursuit of that same pound of beef.

    Short version? Change is up to us, and we decide what food resides at the end of our own forks. It starts right there, and we all have to make a personal decision on the matter – with every bite we take.

    Long version? Here’s what I did. I stopped eating meat. I know, I know, it’s a “growth industry” (yeah, weak attempt at punning there). Clearly, meat bolsters the market. (more punning?) ……but all that is bull crap, in my opinion – just like eating animals. And I live in Texas! Where they’ll barbecue your seat cushion if you’re silly enough to get up and leave it unattended. (“Serves” you right! …Texas is some kind of yummy, I’ll tell ya!)

    Suffice it to say, I haven’t always lived here. (Back in the day, U.C. Berkeley groomed me for my worldly ventures, …and that ought to help one understand I have a bent for political correctness – even though in my advancing age, I’ve largely forgotten all its hidden rules and guidelines.)

    When I was in high school and about a decade before cell phones and personal computers and multinational corporations were becoming the norm, mind you, I lived in the town of Petaluma, CA. They had dairy farming there, and I had opportunity to hang out on the family farm from time to time on account of a friendship of mine at that time in my life. This is a short story, I promise.

    What I learned then was pretty straight forward. Dairy cows are treated with a degree of respect (if improperly dosed with antibiotics in these times of megalith corporate uncaring profit seeking blah-blah-blah), or they dry up and cease giving money. Er, milk.

    Yes, to a dairy farmer, milk is money. For me, it’s butter and easy protein. And tasty, too. But the upside is, the dairy cow doesn’t have to die in the mud from some nasty intestinal bug (because their stomachs are not biologically suited to the practice of consuming corn feed), or become lame from an untreated hoof rot, or festering skin ulcer. And it doesn’t have to die in fear during the slaughtering times (see a movie called ‘Temple Grandon’ for an entertaining take on the hugeness if not the humaneness of the U.S. Beef industry and its practices).

    Oh, and is it another topic entirely to consider the Pink Slime that’s added to ground beef in order to soak up all the blood during processing and packaging? It probably is another topic. Let’s say that’s a smart aleck comment, and not worthy of the audience’s time.

    I’m ashamed of humanity’s practices toward other species. Me? I catch bugs in a jar and release them outside where they can sustain their own lives away from the hazards, drought and famine of my indoor living quarters. And yes, I don’t eat animals.

    I figure this is the best American diet of all times: if one can’t grow it in one’s back yard, then one is advised to not eat it. ………….It’s easy, once one kicks the sugar habit (strategically placed into EVERY available processed food, and which sugar acts on the human system just like an addictive drug).

    God bless the use of parenthetical remarks! Without them, who could know that a healthier human diet is only 24-72 hours away (that’s how long the system takes to bounce back from man made sugar consumption, and to begin its journey of inner cleansing), and that a healthier human diet is a more humane life for human livestock.

    Then again, I’m sure I’ve overlooked something. But in a perfect world, my cow’s name is Betsy and she’s treated with respect so that I can continue to consume the ancient byproducts of domestication we know as milk and butter. Betsy is a good cow, and literally has a place in my heart. Moo.

  2. John Cutting says:

    OOPS — known typos are “audience’s” and “…a more humane life…”

    Thanks for listening. ……..John

  3. When i was a kid, I lived in Ontario, and one of our neighbors was a small dairy farmer. I drank buckets of unpasteurized milk, and loved it. We grew most of our vegetables on our own land. When I was a little older, we moved to Texas, and my grandfather (since deceased) had a small farm with exactly one cow, named Beauty btw, and had fresh milk from her. Best ever.

    Nowadays, I live in the city, and I couldn’t even get unpasteurized milk, legally, if I wanted. I have no dirt I could even grow a bell pepper on, much less enough to sustain us. A shame.

    I’m torn still, though, because I like to occasionally eat charred flesh of other animals. I do my best to avoid factory farm products, but of course, as you realize, this is quite a challenge.

  4. John Cutting says:

    Beauty, huh? That’s a nice name for a cow. Texas, huh? That’s an interesting coincidence. Really quickly, can I offer you a funny? I tease myself when I look at it like this. I figure that if Beauty were standing out in the back yard next to a cabbage plant, and I went up to Beauty and tried to take a bite out of her hind quarters – she might have something to say about it. And how!

    Then, once I regain consciousness and pick myself up out of the dirt, I try biting that cabbage plant instead. I’m pleased when it doesn’t bite me back, and a new relationship has been formed. …Like I say, I’m just teasing when I relate to it in this way.

    I do agree wholeheartedly, it’s a shame we can’t all be afforded our own personal acre sized plot for gardening and such. I enjoy the occasional movie / learning tool that offers me useful info. Jim Merkel is in a movie called Radically Simple (based on his book, ‘Radical Simplicity’). Long story short, he (and others in the know) calculated that every human being (some 6.4 billion then, and some 7 billion now) requires 3 or 4 acres or so in land resources to accomplish “modern life and lifestyle.” I trust you’ve heard of the concept, which was once new to me.

    Anyway, at some point during one’s perception of modern societies we still are ENTITLED to land that grows us healthy food items. Even if that land is in Ecuador, or Brazil. What sucks for us, is that modern corporations don’t care that our personal plots of land are being pushed (if only in this metaphor) to somewhere more like Siberia, or Mongolia. Which would be great if we could all survive on tundra salad, sprinkled with barren rocks for topping.

    I’m sorry for you that you can’t obtain the plot of land suitable for your family’s sustained food requirements directly. On the other hand, we NEED intelligent people such as yourself and the likes of which are so often formed or created in urban environments. And farming and urban tend to be very divergent landscapes, so I guess you’ll have to continue shopping for your food while cultivating human intelligence on behalf of us all. But I agree with you. A shame.

    Gives a new meaning to intelligent farming, doesn’t it? Heh-heh.

    Well, I’m sure you know all the rest of my thoughts on such a thing, as I’m sure you have them yourself as well. Still, it’s been nice to agree with you. You are a human being, and you have a right to be on this planet. Someone somewhere has bought up your birthright acre of farming soil – I hope they’re treating it with the respect it deserves. I have my doubts about especially the long-term efficacy of our modern methods of pro-activism in the U.S., but I’m trying to keep my ear to the ground about my own proverbial acre of soil. Environmental Defense Fund has so far been my greatest tool for popping off emails to local legislators in an attempt to show the powers that be – I care about my acre, and I care about what Corporatocracy is growing on it. And how.

    Earthworm poop is so important. Remember Dune? Those lowly worms of ours, mean the world as we know it. Be well, and thanks for listening. …J.

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