June 10, 2005


Mission creep(iness) at the FDA
by Craig Volland

Many of us have been following the latest blunders by the US Food and Drug Administration, which regularly approves prescription drugs that turn out to kill people. It’s hard not to lose confidence in this federal agency charged with protecting the public from dangerous medical products and additives to processed foods.

I would submit, however, that the agency is just misunderstood. Its real mission is to help corporations conduct experiments on the American public with minimum loss of life. We should just relax and enlist ourselves to help prove-out the new miracle drugs and synthetic foods that support our way of life.

A good example was the approval of genetically engineered foods in the early 1990s. After Monsanto presented a couple of rudimentary studies, FDA management ignored some of its scientists and stated that GE food was “substantially equivalent” to what we already eat and could be stamped “GRAS,” generally regarded as safe. Thus, the FDA accommodated our leaders in Washington who were anxious to get the jump on the international competition. That way we’d have something to sell to pay for oil from the Middle East and toys from China. That approval began the largest uncontrolled experiment on the American public and our environment since the introduction of asbestos products in the 1930s and the commercialization of pesticides in the 1940s and ‘50s based on chlorine chemistry and chemical weapons.

Less known, perhaps, is another experiment managed by FDA, the use of antibiotics in animal factories. My source is a study published in the May 2005 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.

In 1995 and 1996, the FDA approved two brands of the antibiotic fluoroquinolone for the livestock industry despite that this was a relatively new and important drug for the treatment of human infectious disease. This antibiotic was promptly introduced into the broiler chicken industry in an attempt to reduce disease in the tightly packed chicken barns we often see along the highway in eastern and southern rural America.

What followed was a number of alarming new studies that showed that people who were sick from campylobacter, bacteria commonly found on supermarket chicken, were carrying a type resistant to fluoroquinolones. Stool samples taken from patients showed that most of the infections were resistant before treatment with the antibiotic. Meanwhile other studies showed that fresh poultry products were the major sources of campylobacter infections in humans, and they found this resistant bug in live chickens treated with the drug. But get this: Australia had prohibited the use of fluoroquinolones in poultry production and, despite regular use of this antibiotic in humans, there have been no confirmed cases of resistant campylobacter.

In 2000, FDA backtracked and announced it intended to withdraw the drug from use with animals. In early 2002, chicken giants Tyson and Perdue announced they would no longer use the drug. In March 2004, the FDA’s action was upheld in court. However, one drug manufacturer is appealing and fluoroquinolone continues to be marketed for chicken production, though apparently not widely used.

The authors of the current study surveyed some fresh poultry products obtained from grocery stores from February to May 2003. Campylobacter was detected on 84% of the samples, which is consistent with previous studies of this type. Some 40% of the campylobacter samples were fluoroquinolone resistant. The major brands were much higher in this regard than a couple of small brands advertised as antibiotic free.

How could this be if use of the drug had been discontinued the year before?

The authors of the study noted that this problem had persisted in Denmark some five years after the drug’s use in chicken production was banned. They suggested this lingering contamination was related to inadequate disinfection of the barns. In the US many poultry houses are built with dirt floors and are typically cleaned only every 2-3 years, perhaps providing a long-term reservoir of bugs that infect subsequent flocks. The authors also pointed to conditions in so called modern poultry slaughterhouses — an interesting story in itself.

So there you have it: Another success story in FDA’s new mission to conduct uncontrolled experiments on the US public. Fortunately, in this case, few people die from Campylobacter, though resistant strains are dangerous to the elderly and to those with compromised immune systems. Those who get sick or die from FDA’s bold experiments can be justly proud that they contributed to the economic power of our country and the preservation of our way of life.

Craig Volland is president of Spectrum Technologists, an environmental research firm. He is certified as a Qualified Environmental Professional and formerly was a member of Mid America Regional Council’s Air Quality Forum. He is active in the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club.


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