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Who’s Really Keeping Tabs on Animal Drugs?

October 16th, 2015
By Cameron Harsh & Cristina Stella, authors of the CFS report, "America’s Secret Animal Drug Problem"
Center for Food Safety

The animals we eat have a drug problem, but it’s no fault of their own. The majority of the meat we consume is raised in large industrial animal factories, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). The crowded conditions of these animal factories and the constant push towards greater productivity have driven the overreliance on the routine use of numerous animal drugs and drug formulations to prop up an unsustainable and inhumane food system. In a new report, Center for Food Safety (CFS) surveyed the current available safety information on commonly used animal drugs and found that many urgently demand reexamination by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Many Americans are under the false impression that the agency responsible for approving and regulating drugs used in our food system, FDA, practices careful oversight. After all, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) requires FDA to ensure that animal drugs are safe for both humans and animals before approving their sale, and to take drugs off the market if they are found to be unsafe. Yet, CFS has found that sufficient, rigorous scientific studies on the human, animal, and environmental health impacts of many animal drugs are not available or accessible to the public, spurring crucial questions as to what information FDA used to inform its decisions to approve these drugs. Reviews of the existing scientific data that CFS was able to compile suggest that some drugs on the market today may pose significant risks to humans, animals, or the environment. So why, then, is FDA not taking action?

Contrary to its mandate as the primary regulatory agency with respect to animal drugs, FDA fails to actively monitor data on approved animal drugs or consider new science, instead relying on the public to raise red flags. The burden is currently on concerned citizens and public-interest organizations, including CFS, to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain whatever risk data the agency may possess on approved animal drugs such as antibiotics, beta-agonists, steroid hormones, antioxidants, arsenicals, and cocciodiostats. The agency has so far proven reluctant to provide the requested information to CFS, raising further concerns. CFS reviews the limited information it receives, and takes action through petitions and lawsuits to force FDA to address safety concerns of drugs (as with ractopamine) or withdraw approval of drugs when they are found to be unsafe (as with arsenic). So in reality, the agency that is required to protect consumers and animals is protecting an industry that has an interest in keeping the effects of its products a secret, at our expense.

Arsenic provides an illuminating example of FDA's reluctance to take enforceable action when an animal drug is demonstrated to be unsafe. Approved as a feed additive since the 1940s, and used for its effectiveness in promoting growth and preventing some common CAFO diseases, arsenic is a known carcinogen in certain forms. Despite the known human health concerns and substantial evidence demonstrating presence of arsenic residues on retail meat, it took months of public campaigns and litigation to achieve the withdrawal of most arsenic-based animal drugs. Even still, FDA only took regulatory action after CFS sued, and then worked with drug companies to voluntary withdraw their arsenic products. Three arsenic-based drugs remain approved today. FDA’s continued hesitance to fulfill its responsibility under the FFDCA will only further threaten public health and food safety, as the use of other drugs of concern will continue unabated or may even increase.

By neglecting its duty to thoroughly regulate animal drugs, and relying on the public to investigate their safety, FDA is risking significant harm to humans, animals, and the environment—all while allowing industrial animal producers and pharmaceutical companies to hide the harmful effects of these drugs and benefit financially from their rampant use. If FDA is going to continue to depend on the public to investigate the safety of approved animal drugs, then it should, at the very least, be more transparent by making all health and safety data within its possession readily available to the public. However, to truly fulfil its duty to the American people, FDA should take steps to relieve the public of that burden and actively apply its authority to conduct regular, systematic reviews of animal drugs to ensure their safety for both humans and animals.

In the meantime, consumers can take action to protect their health and fight against the secrecy that surrounds what the animals we eat are eating, themselves. Right now we’re pressuring Subway to serve meat raised without routine use of antibiotics and we’re already starting seeing a response from the company. Consumer demand has already led some companies to change their practices with regard to sourcing drug-free meat, like Chipotle, Panera, and even McDonalds is making progress. CFS continues to lead consumer campaigns to move even more companies toward this model. Citizens can also create or support efforts at the state and local level to regulate the use of animal drugs where federal oversight is lacking, like in California, where legislators just set the strictest limits in the U.S. on the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in meat production.

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