Efforts to restrict the use of antibiotics in food animals suffered a severe blow last week, delivered by the Government Accountability Office. A report issued by GAO concluded there isn’t sufficient data to study a link between antibiotic use in food animals to antibiotic use in humans.

The report may tamp down the rhetoric about antibiotic use, but it likely will simmer again as members of Congress already are attempting to restrict the use of antibiotics in food animals. Supporters of such a measure are expected to ignore the GAO report and seek other reports claiming there is such a link.

The GAO report was based on data collected by the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture about antibiotic use in food animals and on resistant bacteria in animals and retail meat. “However,” GAO said in its report, “these data lack crucial details necessary to examine trends and understand the relationship between use and resistance.”

National Pork Producers Council president Doug Wolf said in a news release issued in response to the report, “Not only is there no scientific study linking antibiotic use in food animals to antibiotic resistance in humans, as the U.S. pork industry has continually pointed out, but there isn’t even adequate data to conduct a study. The GAO report on antibiotic resistance confirms this.”

Already, there are several layers of protection in place to ensure antibiotics are used without harm to public health. Producer organizations say it’s important for consumers to know that by law, no meat sold in the U.S. is allowed to contain antibiotic residues that violate FDA standards. Antibiotics used in food animal production must go through rigorous scientific testing process before being approved by FDA.

The GAO report noted that HHS and USDA worked to research alternatives to current antibiotic use practices and to educate producers and veterinarians on appropriate use of antibiotics. However, the extent of such efforts are unclear because the agencies haven’t assessed their effectiveness, limiting their ability to identify holes where research may be needed.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association supports the judicious use of antimicrobials, a policy that has been in place since 1987. The guidelines specifically outline the appropriate use of antibiotics:

  • Avoid using antibiotics that are important in human medicine.
  • Use a narrow spectrum of antimicrobials whenever possible.
  • Treat the fewest number of animals possible.
  • Antibiotic use should be limited to prevent or control disease and should not be used if the principle intent is to improve performance.

NCBA and other producer organizations also note that antibiotics are an important and necessary technology in protecting animal health and well-being. NCBA is also opposed to congressional action determining the safety and efficacy of antibiotics. “This is the role of FDA and we ask Congress to empower the agency to do its job effectively, based on sound science, in an open, transparent process.”