NATIONAL REPORT — The federal agencies charged with monitoring antimicrobial use and resistance are not doing a good enough job of collecting
data, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been tracking the amounts of antibiotics sold, but GAO contends the data shines
little light on what those antibiotics are used for and in what species.
Other federal departments have been using existing surveys to track antimicrobial use and resistance data, but those surveys
were not designed to collect such data and have left the agencies unable to predict trends. And none of the departments work
collaboratively, GAO says.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are the two federal departments
primarily responsible for ensuring the safety of the food supply, including the safe use of antibiotics in food animals. Within
those two departments, eight different agencies are tasked with roles in tracking antimicrobial use and resistance. In 1999,
GAO reported that despite more than two decades of discussion, federal agencies failed to reach an agreement on the safe use
of antimicrobials in food animals. In 2004, GAO recommended HHS and USDA jointly develop a plan for collecting data on antibiotic
use in animals. But in the latest report, GAO notes that despite agency agreement with the recommendation, neither HHS nor
USDA have implemented it, and the departments continue to collect data independently.
The most recent report is not the first time GAO called federal agencies to task for not working together. Biennial reviews
in 2009 and 2011 both concluded "the fragmentation of federal food safety oversight continues to be a problem."
An interagency plan developed in 2001 to help federal agencies coordinate efforts related to antibiotic resistance contained
84 action items involving surveillance, prevention and control, research and product development. But GAO says data collected
under the plan is not sufficient for identifying trends. Public health organizations interviewed for the report say the federal
government needs to collect more information on the purpose of antibiotic use. But officials from various agencies tell GAO
that detailed information on antimicrobial use is difficult to collect for several reasons. First, producers do not always
maintain records on antibiotic use. Second, producers who do collect data may be reluctant to provide it to the federal government
voluntarily, GAO reports, adding that FDA is looking into its legal options for requiring producers to report antibiotic use.
Collecting data from veterinarians can also be a challenge since many antibiotics can be purchased without veterinary involvement.
Additionally, even for prescription antibiotics, veterinary records can be difficult to obtain, GAO says.
"A veterinary organization we spoke with stated that it would be cumbersome for veterinarians to provide this information
to an agency because there is no centralized reporting mechanism, such as an electronic database," the report states.
Feed mills maintain records on antibiotics mixed into animal feed, including the amount used and the type of feed the antibiotic
went into. An official from the animal-feed industry told GAO that, although feed mills don't intentionally track antibiotic
use by species, they do track information that could be used for that purpose. But FDA officials told GAO that collecting
use data from feed mills would require the agency to develop a new reporting mechanism.
Several programs for collecting data on farms have been tried by federal agencies, but were subsequently discontinued due
to lack of funding or high costs of implementation, GAO says.