WASHINGTON — With the backing of the Obama administration, a new measure introduced in the House of Representatives seeks to ban some uses of antibiotics for food animals because they are considered too important for human health.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) opposes the bill, known as the "Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009."
"We're concerned with the broad brush ban on antibiotics," says Dr. Ashley Shelton, assistant director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division (GRD). "We're obviously concerned with the increase in animal disease and death a broad brush ban of antibiotics would mean, which is an unfortunate consequence of this bill."
The topic of antimicrobial use spurred hours of discussion at the recently concluded AVMA meeting with no real answers. Neither government nor agriculture is waiting around for an opinion.
The bill, introduced in March by Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., cites several findings to support the proposed regulations, including those from a 2001 federal interagency task force that say "antibiotic resistance is a growing menace to all people and poses a serious threat to public health" and "if current trends continue, treatments for common infections will become increasingly limited and expensive, and, in some cases, nonexistent."
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree.
But Shelton cautions saying that the same language has been used every year for the past several years in an effort to ban anticmicrobials.
Joshua Sharfstein, MD, a principal deputy commissioner with the FDA, testified before the House Rules Committee in July that the agency supports phasing out growth promotion/feed efficiency uses of antimicrobials in animals. The agency also wants to give veterinarians more control over uses of antibiotics on the farm.
"FDA recommends that any proposed legislation facilitate the timely removal of non-judicious uses of anti-microbial drugs in food-producing animals," Sharfstein wrote in submitted testimony. "At the same time, FDA believes that legislation should permit the judicious use of antimicrobials in animals for prevention and control."
The CDC gathers data through the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System for Enteric Bacteria (NARMS) and distributes it to the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, says Lola Russell, of the CDC.
While no new data have necessarily come to light, the CDC is in agreement with Sharfstein and the FDA, she says.
No veterinarians were asked to testify at this hearing.
Nonetheless, the AVMA House of Delegates did take up the issue at its annual meeting in Seattle. The body voted to form a task force to take a look at the issue and have a report no later than next year's annual conference.
Meanwhile, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the National Association of County and City Health Officials and the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture all have supported legislation to phase out non-therapeutic uses of antimicrobials in farm animals, according to the proposed bill.
Dr. Gatz Ridell, executive vice-president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP), says the proposed ban is just the latest of many attempts to try to remove antimicrobials without a scientific basis.
"This is probably the fifth or sixth year that a similar bill has been introduced, or at least discussed, on the legislative agenda," Ridell says. "This year, it's because the PEW Commission is pushing its agenda on anti-farm legislation."
Ridell and Shelton noted that the fact that the issue was heard by the Rules Committee is unusual, as it would normally be taken up by the Agriculture Committee.
"The members of the panel that presented did not represent any facet of agriculture nor any significant scientific entity," Ridell says.
He attests that the bill makes presumptions that are not scientific.
"We have not studied this complex issue to the point where we can say any use negatively impacts public health," he says.
"There is nothing to say that people experience more days of illness because of it or more severe illness. If there is documented proof, we would be the first to insist on changes being made. But in the absence of that proof, it's hard to make changes."
Finding answers is key.
The AVMA task force that will look at the issue will be a similar entity to the one that created the rules for judicious antimicrobial use in the late '90s, Ridell says.
"At that time, two things weren't present — the opportunity to reduce or remove over-the-counter products wasn't on the table, nor was veterinary feed direction for animal feed. With those two items, I think it is really appropriate for AVMA to go back and review, and in all likelihood revise, judicious use."
Ridell isn't the only one who believes the bill and the FDA may be prematurely overreaching.
Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., entered the following statement into the congressional record when discussing a separate bill being considered by the House that deals with agricultural practices.
"In fact, a recent example of the FDA's unwillingness to accept the expertise of the USDA was demonstrated this week. It involved another bill, H.R. 1549, which would restrict—in fact, eliminate—the use of animal antibiotics," Moran says.
"It would institute a ban on the nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics, which is another ill-conceived concept concerning a very complex issue. Yet we learned today that no consultation by the FDA has occurred with the USDA.
"In a hearing earlier this week before the House Rules Committee, the FDA suddenly shifted its course and supported this ban. No new research or scientific analysis was presented. Again, apparently no consultation with the USDA occurred. So much for collaborating with the Department of Agriculture."
A companion bill to H.R. 1549, S.619, was introduced by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in March, but there has been no action on it since.
Kennedy's bill was referred to the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The AVMA currently is holding meetings to speak with members of the FDA and Capital Hill staff, Shelton says.