Food Safety:

The Agricultural Use of Antibiotics and Its Implications for Human Health

RCED-99-74: Published: Apr 28, 1999. Publicly Released: May 3, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on antibiotic resistance issues that may stem from the use of antibiotics in agriculture, focusing on the: (1) use of antibiotics in agriculture and the implications of that use for human health; (2) federal roles and responsibilities for overseeing the use of antibiotics in agriculture; and (3) issues surrounding the debate over whether to further regulate or restrict the use of antibiotics in agriculture.

GAO noted that: (1) antibiotics are used in agriculture to treat and prevent diseases in animals and in food plants and as a feed additive to improve the growth rate in animals; (2) data are not available on the quantities of specific antibiotics used in agriculture and the purposes for which they are used; (3) research has linked the use of antibiotics in agriculture to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of disease-causing bacteria; (4) although the ill effects of these foodborne pathogens are generally mild to moderate, each year several thousand persons have severe illnesses resulting in hundreds of deaths; (5) in addition to the direct transfer of antibiotic-resistant organisms through animal products, some research suggests that the use of antibiotics in food animals may reduce the effectiveness of related antibiotics when used to treat humans; (6) approving antibiotics and setting allowable levels for antibiotic residues in food products is determined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for animals and the Environmental Protection Agency for food plants; (7) testing for antibiotic levels in foods is performed by the Food Safety and Inspection Service for meat and poultry and by FDA for eggs, milk, and food plants; (8) monitoring the development of resistance to antibiotics in humans is conducted under a program run jointly by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; (9) the debate over whether to further regulate or restrict the use of antibiotics in animals and plants centers around the risk their use may pose to human health relative to their benefits to agriculture; (10) this concern has prompted several European countries to ban the use in animal feed of four antibiotics that are considered very important in treating humans; (11) beef, pork, and poultry producers and pharmaceutical manufacturers believe agricultural use is only one potential contributor to antibiotic resistance in humans; they claim that research does not warrant restricting antibiotic use in agriculture; (12) USDA believes that more research is needed before decisions are made regarding the further regulation or restriction of antibiotic use in food animals; (13) the Department of Health and Human Services believes that based on the scientific evidence, steps are needed now, not at some time in the future, to decrease such use; and (14) FDA's recently proposed framework for evaluating the safety of antibiotics for use in food-producing animals does not include specific timeframes for reevaluating approved antibiotics.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In light of the emergence of antibiotic resistance in humans, questions about the extent that the agricultural use of antibiotics contributes to the human health burden, and the debate over whether further regulation or restriction of use in agriculture is needed, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services should develop a plan with specific goals, timeframes, and resources needed to evaluate the risks and benefits of the existing and future use of antibiotics in agriculture, including identifying any data gaps and research needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FDA/HHS addressed the recommendation by the publication of the Public Health Action Plan to Combat Antimicrobial Resistance, Part I.

    Recommendation: In light of the emergence of antibiotic resistance in humans, questions about the extent that the agricultural use of antibiotics contributes to the human health burden, and the debate over whether further regulation or restriction of use in agriculture is needed, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services should develop a plan with specific goals, timeframes, and resources needed to evaluate the risks and benefits of the existing and future use of antibiotics in agriculture, including identifying any data gaps and research needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA addressed the recommendation by the publication of the Public Health Action Plan to Combat Antimicrobial Resistance, Part I.

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