Spring 2014

Antibiotic Crackdown

New FDA policies limit drugs’ use in food animals, consumer goods

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Illustration: Marc Rosenthal

The widespread use of antibiotics in American life, a practice long criticized by Stuart Levy, professor of microbiology at Tufts, for its tendency to promote antibiotic resistance, may have reached a turning point. In less than a week in mid-December, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) introduced new policies to reduce the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in cows and chickens raised for meat while also bringing fresh levels of scrutiny to the claims of antibiotic soap manufacturers that their products are safe and effective.

Levy, who was among the first scientists in the country to identify the problem, in the 1970s, is president of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics and director of the Center for Adaptation Genetics & Drug Resistance at the medical school. It is estimated that approximately 2 million Americans become sick and about 23,000 die from antibiotic-resistant infections each year.

Both governmental actions represent a dramatic change in thinking on the part of the FDA. Regarding the ruling on livestock regulation, the New York Times said, “This is the U.S. agency’s first serious attempt in decades to curb what experts have long regarded as the systematic overuse of antibiotics in healthy farm animals, with the drugs typically added directly into their food and water.” The proposed changes would ban farmers from using the medicines to promote livestock growth and require licensed veterinarians to supervise their use.

Levy is gratified to see the shift. “I’m kind of happy,” he told the Times. “For all of us who’ve been struggling with this issue, this is the biggest step that’s been taken in the last 30 years.”

Since the 1970s, health officials have warned that the overuse of antibiotics in animals posed a health risk, by leading to the development of infections in humans that were resistant to treatment. Their efforts have mostly been thwarted by the food industry.

Tougher rules on antibacterial soaps were also proposed by the FDA, which said it would more closely examine claims advanced within the field. The safety of chemicals such as triclosan used in the soaps is of particular concern.

Again, Levy spoke out in support of the move: “The FDA is finally making a judgment call here and asking industry to show us that these products are better than soap and water, and the data doesn’t substantiate that,” he told the Associated Press.

More than soap is involved in the discussion. By implication, the question of safety surrounding antibacterial products could affect the $1 billion U.S. industry selling everything from toothpaste to kitchen knives.

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