US Rep. Louise Slaughter and Sen. Dianne Feinstein have asked the Obama administration to clarify its position on antibiotic use in food animals.
In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the lawmakers asked him to explain remarks he made Sept. 15 at a National Cattlemen's Beef Association meeting.
Responding to a question about legislation Slaughter and Feinstein have proposed, Vilsack reportedly said the use of antibiotics in livestock production cannot be banned, adding "USDA's public position is, and always has been, that antibiotics need to be used judiciously, and we believe they already are."
Slaughter and Feinstein, in their letter, said Vilsack's statements, taken out of context, "highlight a common misperception about our legislation."
Phasing out antibiotics
They said their bill does not ban antibiotics in agriculture but would gradually phase out the use of seven antibiotics that are critical in human medicine.
The bill also calls for farmers to use antibiotics only under veterinary supervision and only for sick animals; antibiotics could not be used as a daily meal supplement in animals' feed.
The bill, called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, was introduced in 2009. It calls for stricter measures than were recently urged by the Food and Drug Administration, which is merely asking for voluntary compliance.
Slaughter and Feinstein, in the letter to Vilsack, asked whether USDA believes all antibiotics are used judiciously. "USDA officials have publicly acknowledged the forty years of evidence suggesting the need to change antibiotic usage practices on farms," they wrote.
They also pointed to a statement made by Dr. John Clifford, USDA chief veterinary officer, during a July 14 hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Clifford said then that USDA is "committed to identifying opportunities to reduce (antibiotic) usage and maintain the effectiveness of these drugs...through the development of new treatment options for animals..."
In their letter, Slaughter and Feinstein told Vilsack his comments to the Cattlemen's association seemed to run counter to previous positions taken by department officials.
In response Vilsack's office released this statement: "USDA believes that antibiotic use should be used judiciously to slow the development of resistance in animals. USDA believes livestock producers are good stewards, use antibiotics judiciously, but there are some bad actors, and continued use can develop resistance. USDA wants to be a partner with Congress, producers and other federal partners to address this important issue."
Antibiotic use in the US is estimated at almost 35,000 tonnes, of which nearly 25,000 tonnes is used in animal feed and drinking water.