April 5, 2012

When FDA Bans a Drug in Poultry Production … Who Listens?

Christine Grillo

Christine Grillo

Contributing Writer

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

“In Cipro we trust.”

These were Tom Brokaw’s words on NBC Nightly News, in October of 2001, a month after the 9/11 attacks. As he said it, he held up a bottle of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin, which is used to treat anthrax. At that time, more than 30 people in the U.S. Capitol had tested positive for anthrax exposure, the result of some snail-mail terrorism.

Now, a new CLF study has uncovered a surprising link between drugs like Cipro and poultry products. (News release here.) These studies are getting some attention from The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof, whose feathers are ruffled by the ickiness of what goes into poultry feed, as well as by the connection between antibiotic resistance and poultry production (“Arsenic in Our Chicken?”).

Like Brokaw, we trust antibiotics to work. But antibiotics are in trouble, thanks in part to their misuse by industrial agriculture. Because of this misuse, there is an increase in strains of “super” bacteria that can infect humans but resist antibiotics.

But in 2005 FDA took some pretty strong action against the misuse of one class of antibiotics by industrial agriculture. The class of antibiotics that FDA decided to safeguard was fluoroquinolones, and they did so by banning their use in poultry production. In fact, in order to enact the ban, FDA had to prevail against Bayer (the manufacture of fluoroquinolone Cipro), who put up a good fight.

How’s that ban going? Maybe not so good. The new CLF study has produced some disturbing findings, and I hope they ruffle more feathers than Kristof’s. The studies tested feather meal, a product made from ground-up poultry feathers, for substances that were consumed by the poultry prior to their slaughter—and the researchers found not only caffeine, acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Benadryl, and the active ingredient in Prozac, but also fluoroquinolones.

Here’s a statement from David Love, PhD, the lead author of the study.

Why study feather meal? We know that antibiotics are fed to poultry to stimulate growth and to make up for crowded living conditions in poultry houses, but the public does not know what types of drugs are used and in what amounts.  It turns out that many of these drugs accumulate in poultry feathers, so by testing feathers we have a non-invasive way of learning about what drugs are actually fed to poultry.

In this study we purchased feather meal from six U.S. states plus China and tested the samples for 59 different pharmaceuticals and personal care products.  The results were very concerning.  In six of ten U.S. samples we detected fluoroquinolones, a class of antibiotics banned from use in U.S. poultry production since 2005.  Fluoroquinolones are broad-spectrum drugs used to treat serious bacterial infections in people, especially infections that are resistant to older antibiotics.  The World Health Organization considers fluoroquinolones “critically important in human medicine.”

For more coverage on this study: “Researchers find banned antibiotics in poultry byproducts” in the Baltimore Sun.

For more information on antibiotic resistance and food animal production links, and on FDA’s action, see these blogposts:

Move to Strike: Amendment to Arsenic Legislation Strips Bill of Its Meaning (Keeve Nachman)

FDA Enters Withdrawal: Agency Must Pursue Limits on Penicillins and Tetracyclines (Tyler Smith)

The Science is Clear: Antibiotic Resistance and Food Animal Production (Christine Grillo)

‘Superbug’ Transfer: The Jump From Humans, to Animals, and Back (Chris Stevens)

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: FDA on Cephalosporin, Penicillin, and Tetracycline (Tyler Smith)

And this article in The Atlantic online, by CLF director Robert Lawrence:

The FDA Enters Withdrawal: The Future of Antibiotics on Farms

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