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As Antibiotic Resistant MRSA Surges, Consumer Group Says its Time for FDA to Address Antibiotic Overuse in Animal Agriculture

Dec 26, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

Drug resistant MRSA is on the rise, and some scientists believe antibiotic overuse in animal agriculture is a major reason for this phenomena.  Now, the consumer advocacy group Keep Antibiotics Working has asked the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to take steps to curb this dangerous practice.   Yes despite the growing evidence that antibiotic overuse in animal farming is detrimental, federal regulators, like the FDA, seem unwilling to do anything about the practice.

It has long been recognized that the overuse of antibiotics to treat minor ailments has helped to encourage the development of drug-resistant pathogens.  Because of that, many doctors have drastically cut back on the amount of antibiotics they prescribe.  But according to Keep Antibiotics Working, the use of the drugs within the livestock industry is an even bigger threat to public health.  According to the group, about 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the livestock industry are used in a “non-therapeutic” way.   For instance, antibiotics are a common ingredient in feeds to promote growth and compensate for unsanitary animal living conditions.  According to the group, this type of antibiotic use exposes bacteria to low levels of the drugs for an extended period of time – the ideal conditions for allowing pathogens to develop antibiotic resistance. 

According to a 2002 analysis by the group Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, the elimination of non-therapeutic antibiotic use in food animals could greatly reduce antibiotic resistant pathogens.  For that reason, Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition of consumer, environmental, science and humane organizations, has written to FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, MD, urging the Agency to take immediate action on two fronts-MRSA and cephalosporin-resistant bacteria--to protect the efficacy of medicines that fight lethal bacteria.  The coalition's letter details evidence showing that the use of drugs in livestock is contributing to the current MRSA epidemic in Europe and suggests it could play a similar role here. The research includes a recent study published in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's journal Emerging Infectious Diseases that links a new MRSA strain initially found only in pigs to more than 20 percent of all human MRSA infections in the Netherlands.  Research published this fall in Veterinary Microbiology found MRSA was also prevalent in Canadian pigs and pig farmers, pointing again to animal agriculture as a source of the deadly bacteria.

Despite these studies and others from Europe dating back to 2005, the United States does not systematically test pigs, cattle, and other food animals for MRSA. As a result, the US public health establishment does not know whether the use of antibiotics in food animals in the United States is contributing to the reported surge of MRSA cases in the United States.

The coalition's letter also pointed to the proposed agricultural use of a 4th generation cephalosporin, cefquinome, which belongs to a class of drugs used to treat serious and life-threatening infections in patients with compromised immune systems. In September 2006, the FDA's Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee rejected the claim that this use be considered safe, but the drug's manufacturer, Intervet (recently acquired by Schering-Plough), has yet to withdraw their application for FDA approval. Advocates, joined by the American Medical Association, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, fear approval despite the majority opinion of the FDA's own experts.



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