Today, Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY) responded to the Food and Drug Administration's attempt to discredit a critical 2011 report which detailed the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat. The report, conducted by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS), a joint initiative between the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and State public health laboratories, discovered alarming levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria found on retail meats. The Environmental Working Group, an environmental health research and advocacy organization, analyzed the NARMS data and found that store-bought meat tested in 2011 contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria in 81 percent of raw ground turkey, 69 percent of raw pork chops, 55 percent of raw ground beef and 39 percent of raw chicken parts.
Instead of taking this alarming data seriously and creating a plan to combat the growth and prevalence of antibiotic resistant superbugs, the FDA responded with a media campaign to downplay and obfuscate this growing public health crisis, issuing a press release on Monday attempting to debunk the study and penning a letter to the New York Times on Wednesday.
This complements a near forty-year failure by the FDA to enforce concrete regulation of antibiotics in food-animals. In 1977, the FDA proposed withdrawing penicillin and tetracycline from use in farm animals because of the threat to human health of antibiotic resistance. Instead of enforcing that policy, the FDA inexplicably ignored it for years and then instead issued new proposed "voluntary guidelines" in 2012 suggesting "judicious use of antibiotics" which are likely to be equally ignored by industry.
"It's shameful that the FDA has abandoned its responsibility to protect the health and safety of Americans in favor of protecting an industry it is supposed to be regulating," Slaughter said. "The link between overuse of antibiotics in food-animals and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our food is as clear as day, yet the FDA refuses to take action. If the FDA put as much effort into living up to their mandate to protect the public's health as they did into their pro-industry media campaign, we might start to make some headway in preventing antibiotic-resistant bacteria from making their way onto Americans' dinner plates."
Dr. Bernadette Dunham, a former lobbyist for the American Veterinary Medical Association -- a group opposed to limiting antibiotics in farm animals -- who now heads the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine -- the federal agency responsible for regulating antibiotics in farm animals -- was asked how bacteria develop antibiotic resistance during a House Energy and Commerce hearing on April 9. She responded, "I think the question of antimicrobial resistance is challenging. It is incredibly complex, and I don't have the answer." Dr. Dunham echoed that message in the New York Times this morning, adding that it was an "oversimplification to conclude that resistance in any bacterium is problematic for human health."
At a hearing convened by Rep. Slaughter in 2009, however, the FDA "had the answer," when Principal Deputy Commissioner of Food and Drugs Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein testified that, "Antimicrobial resistance is the ability of bacteria or other microbes to resist the effects of a drug. Antimicrobial resistance occurs when bacteria change in some way that reduces or eliminates the effectiveness of drugs, chemicals, or other agents designed to cure or prevent infections . Antimicrobial use in animals has been shown to contribute to the emergence of resistant microorganisms that can infect people. The inappropriate nontherapeutic use of antimicrobial drugs of human importance in food-producing animals is of particular concern."
According to Avinash Kar of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Dr. Dunham's assertion ignores the World Health Organization's "concern about antibiotic-resistant bacteria showing up in meat because resistant bacteria can exchange genetic material with each other and even harmless bacteria can share their resistance with harmful ones."
Specifically, the FDA's argument hinges on the fact that Enterococcus faecalis, a bacteria that indicates the meat likely came into contact with fecal matter and that there is a high likelihood that other antibiotic resistant bacteria are on the meat, is not a "potential food borne pathogen" that can be passed from animals to humans -- an assertion rejected by the scientific community as well as the FDA itself in 2003. According to FDA scientists in 2003, "Enterococcus faecalis and E. faecium present serious challenges to the control of antimicrobial resistance as they are the third leading cause of nosocomial infections in intensive care units in the United States the use of antimicrobials in food animal production might compromise the efficacy of related drugs in human clinical medicine through selection of resistant populations and their subsequent transfer through the food supply."
"This is the best the agency can do?" said Heather White, Executive Director of the Environmental Working Group. "The FDA has been failing to protect the public health on this issue for 40 years, only recently issuing a voluntary guidance to scale back on the worst antibiotic abuses. Our message is simple: Consumers have a right to know that federal scientists are finding antibiotic-resistant bacteria on retail meat in high percentages."
Antibiotic resistant bacteria have received a spate of media attention in the wake of the NARMS study, as well as a new study that conclusively identified transmission of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) from livestock to humans. Currently, MRSA kills more Americans each year than HIV/AIDS.
Congresswoman Slaughter, a microbiologist, has introduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which would stop the routine overuse of antibiotics in food-animals and preserve eight classes of antibiotics for human use, while allowing exceptions to treat sick animals. PAMTA is supported by 450 organizations, including public health organizations, scientists, the World Health Organization, American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, Union of Concerned Scientists, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and small farmers across the United States. Currently, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are sold for agricultural use. Most often, these antibiotics are distributed at sub-therapeutic levels to healthy animals as a way to compensate for crowded and unsanitary living conditions or to promote growth.