Animal drug industry questions antibiotic resistance claims

The drug industry pushed back Tuesday against claims that antibiotics used in animal agriculture can endanger human health by creating resistant bacteria.

The Animal Health Institute (AHI), which represents companies that make medicines for animals, said the dangers described by advocates of tighter regulations are overblown and could end up harming humans by curtailing investments in new antibiotics to treat animals. 

The group repeated its opposition to Rep. Louise Slaughter's (D-N.Y.) bill to phase out the non-therapeutic use of specific classes of antibiotics in food-producing animals, saying many layers of protection already exist.

The Food and Drug Administration "is on top of this and paying attention," AHI spokesman Ron Phillips said at a briefing for congressional staffers and the media.

The briefing comes as Slaughter's bill has been gaining traction in recent weeks. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) last week became the first House Republican to speak out strongly about the dangers of antibiotic resistance. 

And the FDA has also been looking into the claims. Last month, the agency released draft guidance suggesting that excessive use of antibiotics to grow bigger poultry and livestock "poses a serious public health threat." 

The guidance calls for using antibiotics in food-producing animals only when needed to assure the animals' health — including prevention — and phasing in veterinary oversight or consultation in the use of these drugs; the guidance is voluntary but could lead to regulations down the line.

Richard Carnevale, vice-president for Regulatory, Scientific and International Affairs for AHI, said the FDA approach was "more scientific" than the Slaughter bill, and that AHI was working with the agency to refine its guidance.

"We think FDA is probably on the right track," he said.

Throughout the briefing, AHI officials and scientists working for Pfizer and Eli Lilly's Elanco said the FDA had a thorough process for approving antibiotics for use in animals, especially if there's a risk to human health. 

They also dismissed the often-touted statistic that 70 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. are used in food animals for non-therapeutic purposes, saying that number includes 45 percent of drug classes not used in humans.